From Aural Innovations #40 (September 2008)
There's space rock and then there's space music. Thematically similar yet light years apart in form and execution, space rock is guitar-driven, song-oriented, and often employs lyrics and vocals, while space music is powered by arsenals of synthesizers, utilizes extended, often improvisational, compositional formats, and is almost exclusively instrumental. Space rock is more often than not the province of Brits and Yanks; space music is primarily of European extraction. Space rock, well, rocks; space music floats or drifts. Space rock has its origins in blues and other forms of "popular" music; space music is derived from European classical sources. Keeping these distinctions in mind, the following list concentrates on artists who made the most significant pioneering contributions to the development of space music in the 70's and even into the early 80's. Except for Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze-whose work is undeniably pivotal to the development of space music as a genre-I've resisted the temptation to duplicate entries in order to include as many artists as possible. What follows consequently can simply be thought of as a general guide to the first age of space music, neither inclusive nor definitive but merely helpful to the interested and especially the uninitiated.
TANGERINE DREAM - ZEIT (1972)
Perhaps no other album better defines the aims and techniques of kosmische musik than Zeit. The summa cosmologica of space music and Tangerine Dream's magnum opus, Julian Cope explains in his Krautrocksampler that "…its remarkable unchanging unfolding near-static barely-shifting vegetable organic-ness takes over the room and permeates the whole house...the room in which Zeit is playing becomes that room." To say that Zeit is otherworldly is understating the matter considerably. These are the sounds the stars make as they exhaust their nuclear fuel and collapse inward through the fabric of space itself to some inscrutable fate; these are sonic portraits of yawning alien vistas, hymns to the staggering distances between the island galaxies. Zeit evokes ancient memories of our extraterrestrial origins, visions that are at once immense, incomprehensible, powerful, profound, amorphous and utterly cosmic. The sustained cello note that slowly emerges out of the silence at the beginning of "Birth of Liquid Plejades" resonates like the fearful cords of memory being struck at the base of one's brain, dredging up dim shadows of mystical transfigurations from the inorganic to the sentient, from nonexistence to being. It's rather like the soundtrack to an exhibition of Max Ernst paintings or the aural equivalent to reading Heidegger's Sein und Zeit. Like an iceberg slowly forming, the piece adds layer upon layer of sound, eventually drifting into an interlude of stasis and calm supported by Edgar Froese's plaintive gothic organ and the aqueous flow of guest Florian Fricke's modular Moog. "Nebulous Dawn" ushers in Eno's ambient music program a decade ahead of schedule. Rising out of a primordial drone, "Nebulous Dawn" quickly turns into a lysergic nightmare, visualized in sound and transmitted on the radio waves of the subconscious mind. Its detuned bell tones klang ominously atop a background of carefully mixed electronic sounds, ranging from high-pitched shrieks and sub-harmonic rumblings to disembodied moans and the spectral effluvia of ectoplasmic generators. Both "Origin of Supernatural Probabilities" and "Zeit" are similar in design, though more minimalist in execution. Quiet and introspective, both of these pieces utilize primarily the same sound sources from "Birth of Liquid Plejades" and "Nebulous Dawn" yet achieve a more muted, autumnal effect. "Origin…" and "Zeit" take on the character of phantom landscapes lost somewhere on the border between consciousness and unconsciousness. Listen to Zeit one evening when you're taking a dip in the isolation tank, and you may never find your way back to reality.
KLAUS SCULZE - CYBORG (1973)
Along with Tangerine Dream's Zeit, Schulze's Cyborg stands as one of the supreme achievements of Germany's space cadet nexus. Dark and disturbing yet eerily hypnotic, Cyborg is a panoramic voyage from the outer limits of far-flung galaxies to the even stranger inner landscapes of the human brain. It's basically over an hour and a half of cosmic background radiation filtered and amplified through little more than a VCS3 synthesizer and a Farfisa organ. Its simplicity is almost primal; its effect on the listener is nothing short of mind altering. "Synphära" reminds one of a séance being conducted in the absolute darkness of the intergalactic void. The ominous drone of detuned oscillators and Schulze's hovering Farfisa create a sinister backdrop for a flak attack of cosmic debris distilled and modulated through pulse, triangle and sawtooth wave fluctuations. "Conphära" simply continues this otherworldly invocation by slightly changing the pitch of the fundamental drone and adding the ghostly presence of a full orchestra that drifts in and out of the sonic interstices created by Schulze's humming generators. The overall effect is like being in a cathedral floating through the asteroid belt. "Chromengel" roils with the menace of an approaching thunderstorm, its leaden cellos rising and falling like a low pressure front as a hail of electronic effects ricochet in the consuming darkness. The final cloudburst of shrieking high-voltage energy unleashes a sheet of synthetic rain that sweeps the piece into brooding silence. "Neuronengesang" (usually translated as "Song of Neurons") reverses polarity and charts a course directly to the stormy hemispheres of the listener's brain. Its massive synthesized drones crash like shards of lightning across convoluted gray matter terrain while charged particles of electronic noise crackle and explode in the atmospheric flux. Its subtle shifts of timbre and tonality almost resemble the static flow of electricity trapped in a Tesla coil. Imagine standing at the center of a power station where invisible speeds of energies race so fast they stand still, where blue fire flickers snap and hiss and shuttle through the humming air, where pulsing currents crawl across the flesh like a prickling electric spider-these are the impressions "Neuronengesang" evokes. Long before it was fashionable, Schulze had gone where no one had dared to explore, and Cyborg is the travelogue of that strange but fascinating voyage.
EDGAR FROESE - AQUA (1974)
After the mighty cosmic blitzkrieg of Tangerine Dream in the early 70's, which culminated with the group's kuntsgesamstwerk Zeit, their magisterial führer had apparently decided it was past time for a solo flight into the ether. With its layers of electronic effects, subtle colorations of mellotron and organ, and powerful, repetitive sequential patterns, Aqua remains the cornerstone upon which all of Froese's subsequent albums were built. The hypnotic title track immerses the listener in a mesh of electronic bubbles and hydrostatic waves, while sometimes melodic, sometimes dissonant masses of synthetic sound crescendo like somnolent jellyfish rising through the oceanic currents. "Aqua" explores the deepest recesses of that element which most closely resembles the weightless state of space itself. "Panorphelia," almost a sister track to "Aqua," adds a repetitive pulse and the symphonic grandeur of the mellotron to give the voyage more sustained depth and at least the illusion of gravity. But Froese puts the aquajet into hyperdrive on "NGC 891." Trailing the exhaust of supersonic engines, a rapid fire sequencer bleats its signal like a pulsar flashing from the edge of the galaxy. Surrounded by the whine of starship generators, "NGC 891" shifts into glide mode on its descent into the stratosphere before splashing down amid a flurry of decelerating turbines still aflame with the froth and foam of its interstellar trek. "Upland" is a fitting finale, with its gurgling synthesizer refrain emerging out of an imaginary jungle along some alien shoreline. Punctuated by the distant echoes of barking seadogs, Froese's baleful but majestic organ rises out of the deep like the wreckage of an ancient sea monster exiled from its own kingdom. Serene and meditative, Aqua will fondly remind you of that placid blue water world you call home while you're floating through oceans of endless space somewhere adrift off the coast of Orion.
TANGERINE DREAM - PHAEDRA (1974)
After the sweeping intercosmic drama of Zeit, and perhaps precipitated by their signing to the then newly inaugurated Virgin Records, Tangerine Dream pruned some of its more esoteric mannerisms, added heretofore missing melodic and rhythmic elements (courtesy of mellotron and Moog sequencer) to their palette of sound, and generally tightened up the structural components of their compositions by relying less on improvisation and more on practical composing. The first results of this new approach, contained on Phaedra, while not as profoundly visionary as Zeit's out-of-body astral voyages, are nevertheless just as remarkable for their codification of the archetypal sequencer-driven, mellotron-dominated sound that helped define space music in its classic 70's form. The sleek, creamy veneer of the title track bears witness to the effectiveness of this new streamlined aesthetic. Beginning in what sounds like the cavernous depths of some massive electronic brain, its positronic relays snapping and firing at astronomical velocities, "Phaedra" soars into orbit on the exploding nuclear drive of a powerful sequencer riff. Swept along on its relentless momentum, our celestial engineers pilot their craft with sublime precision, making course corrections with graceful mellotron passages and gliding synthesizer cadenzas that recall the ambiance of a gothic cathedral. Drifting into oceanic stasis with the sequencer engines powering down to sub-light speed, "Phaedra" comes to rest, becalmed on the tides of space, its waves of liquid Fender Rhodes and diaphanous mellotron congealing around the ship like so much cosmic foam. "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares" isn't nearly so forbidding as its title might imply; in fact, its airy melodicism, constructed from layers of mellotron and flanged synthesizer, is really an extension of the ideas explored on "Phaedra." Its dreamy texture and orchestral nuances make the piece almost accessible. "Movements of a Visionary" has an oddly playful character that makes it somewhat atypical in the Tangerine Dream canon. Its insistent repetitiveness reminds one of a choreographed dance being rehearsed over and over, though its glutinous, constantly bubbling sequencer/synth pattern prevents the piece from becoming merely monotonous. The brief but beautiful "Sequent C" carries the album to a somber close, with Peter Baumann's ethereal flute echoing like the forgotten voice of a ghostly pharaoh murmuring a prayer from The Book of the Dead down the corridors of his desert tomb. Phaedra is exquisite night music for insomniacs and sleepwalkers.
KLAUS SCHULZE - MOONDAWN (1976)
Moondawn represents the apex of Schulze's deep space reconnaissance missions, and it's one of the cornerstones of 70's space music. No other album before or since so perfectly captures the sensation of what it must feel like to drift, float, fly and soar through space. The aptly titled "Floating" begins the voyage in space dock, with the liquid chimes of synthesized bells and a brief spoken incantation preparing the listener for embarkation. Dissonant ring-modulated tones and a tide of solar winds rush by your starboard side as a slowly rising string synthesizer unfolds the awesome horizon of interstellar space. A repetitive sequencer pattern, like plasma engines gently humming, power the ship up for its jump into hyperdrive. And then within moments you're accelerating on waves of pounding sequencers, huge Moog solos, whooshing synth effects and rolling drums that carry you through asteroid fields, down wormholes, across the blazing trails of comets, and into the heart of gossamer nebulae. "Floating" almost literally makes you feel as if you're circumnavigating the galaxy. "Mindphaser" reverses the trek's polarity, its automated controls set for the inner space of your cerebral cortex. Deep oceanic waves and a storm of electrical power surges provide the gray matter on top of which icy string synthesizers mass to an almost siren call, heralding the sweeping noise crash that rockets the listener into a maelstrom of electronic sound. Schulze's gothic-inspired organ and thunderous Moog dominate the mix as a cyclone of synth effects explodes across the neural landscape, creating total sensory overload. Moondawn is space opera of Wagnerian proportions, its libretto the humming of the quasars, its stage the universe itself. A warning though: you may find yourself astral projecting while listening to Moondawn.
ASH RA - NEW AGE OF EARTH (1976)
After the dissolution of the original Ash Ra Tempel in the mid-70's, Manuel Göttsching streamlined the group's moniker, beefed up the synth artillery and re-emerged in 1976 as a one man cosmic army. The result, New Age of Earth, is a triumph in every way. Even the album cover itself-a brilliant sunburst rising over the ruins of a towering skyscraper amid a riot of vegetable growth-suggests images of rebirth and awakening. The soaring "Sunrain," with its chugging electro-rhythmic throb, parallels the theme of renaissance. Göttsching acquits himself admirably here as both synth programmer and cosmic guru extraordinaire, creating a joyous, celebratory anthem for the new solar-powered generation. Its locomotive surge of sequencers, almost transparent electronic percussion and kaleidoscopic synth arpeggios implies a rhythmic vitality appropriate to any intimation of rebirth. The cathartic "Ocean of Tenderness" is by contrast more meditative in its soul-stirring exploration of the regenerative power of the sea. Its deep, resonant bass pulse and waves of rising and falling synths sweep the listener along on tides of pure harmonic bliss. The haunting, visually evocative "Deep Distance," the album's shortest track at just under five minutes, creates an emotional intensity that reminds one of being on a faraway beach watching a spiral galaxy rise sun-like over the celestial equator-yet another image of resurrection. The sprawling "Nightdust" varies in mood from dark and melancholic to searchingly pensive. Twittering synth effects fly like meteors across the somber hum of oscillators tuned to the darkly contemplative frequencies of the soul. Its slow, languorous drift envelops the listener like an auroral gloom across a winter sky and implies an attitude of restraint and discretion that must necessarily follow the bacchic excesses of youth's reawakened spirit. Long after the final echoes of New Age of Earth have faded into the deepening silence of the night, the memory of the dreams and visions they inspire will still resonate in the most remote chambers of your heart.
VANGELIS - ALBEDO 0.39 (1976)
Depending on who you ask, Vangelis' symphonic electronic extravaganzas are either the stuff of legend or just plain stuffy. But there's no denying his considerable ability to weld romantic lyricism and baroque structures into towering cathedrals of sound. Vangelis' fussy ornateness and technical self-assurance make Albedo 0.39 the Brandenburg of space music, which is perhaps one of the reasons why so many of its tracks were selected as thematic accompaniment to Carl Sagan's visionary Cosmos series. The throbbing sequencer that introduces "Pulstar" quickly recedes into the background behind a cascading waterfall of electric piano and Vangelis' signature brass synthesizer which is responsible for carrying the piece's main melodic line. The crashing orchestral percussion that punctuates the rococo arrangement heightens its intensity as it approaches symphonic overload. The stirring coda, almost anthemic in phrasing, illustrates Vangelis' total mastery of achieving flawless shifts in lyrical mood. "Alpha" follows essentially the same pattern and is undeniably the single most beautiful composition on the album. Its simple melody belies the sophistication of its almost architectonic arrangement, a graceful dance of staccato synth chimes and singing siren-like flourishes that builds to a thunderous climax. More experimental pieces like "Nucleogenesis" and "Main Sequence" are clearly indebted to European neo-classical avant-garde techniques in their use of compound time signatures, dissonant sound effects and weighty compositional themes. Their overall appeal is perhaps as program music for a sweeping space opera yet to be filmed. The title track uses a detached voice to relay astronomical data about the earth perceived as a celestial object. Swirling in the background, Vangelis' battery of synthesizers evokes a sense of mystery and awe at the staggering mathematics of the sky. As a whole, Albedo 0.39, as its title implies, is an expression of classical proportion, fixed ratios and symmetrical precision-the calculus to orchestrate the invisible harmony of the spheres.
ZANOV - GREEN RAY (1976)
Much like Klaus Schulze during his Cyborg phase (and very much unlike fellow Frenchman Jean-Michel Jarre), Zanov's Green Ray is darkly surreal, repetitive, atonal and deeply cosmic. It's like being inside the psychotic computer in Harlan Ellison's nightmarish short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." On "Machine Desperation," huge modular sequences drone like malfunctioning circuits in a positronic brain, while a thunderstorm discharges its electrical force through howling wind and primitive electronic percussion that reminds one of crashing hail on a metal roof. Entirely static though strangely ambulatory, the piece seethes with latent violence, like a nuclear reactor going critical. "Green Ray" isn't quite as menacing. It almost comes across as an alternate soundtrack to any of your favorite 60's science-fiction movies (Planet of the Vampires comes to mind immediately). Again featuring some colossal sequencer patterns, "Green Ray" nevertheless attempts to be somewhat more melodic by adding filter-swept lead synth lines that form an arabesque of serpentine harmonic phrases. "Running beyond a Dream" combines elements of the first two tracks and adds crescendoing noise effects for an oddly tranquil yet disturbing trip through an electronic landscape filled with strange pulsations, dissonant vibrations and gradual shifts in pitch and harmony that recall such classical antecedents as Ligeti, Xenakis and Stockhausen, all filtered through the cosmic mindset of Schulze. Zanov's compositions never really "go" anywhere; rather, they resemble huge planetary structures that radiate pure sound, much in the same way that a human body or celestial object transmits radio waves of varying frequencies. As a consequence of this emphasis on sound as in and of itself "musical," Zanov's appeal, and that of Green Ray in particular, is perhaps limited but enormously attractive to those interested in the exploration of music at the molecular level, stripped of its reliance on theme, rhythm, and conventional melodic and harmonic elements.
JEAN-MICHEL JARRE - OXYGENE (1976)
Over the years, aficionados of electronic music have made Jarre the butt of endless jokes. His music, it's been said, is too polished, too clean and, ultimately, too clinical. As David Toop observes in Oceans of Sound, Jarre typifies a kind of "old-fashioned hard sci-fi" approach to electronic music, reveling in its attributes of "coldness, detachment [and] mechanisation." Toop's criticism is, at least partially, a valid one, to be sure. No one has ever suggested that Jarre's music is anything but ear candy-but what ear candy! So much electronic music has emerged in the 30 years since Jarre's first album that it's easy to forget how fresh and daring (at least in a bourgeois sort of way) Oxygene really was back in 1976. Jarre's particular talent was his not inconsiderable ability to narrow the Wagnerian scope of Schulze's Gotterdammerung cosmic epics to bite-sized portions and add the impressionistic seasoning of Debussy and Ravel, thereby making space music far more palatable and accessible than it had ever been in the hands of its Teutonic masters. There's an irresistible siren-like quality to the six-part song cycle that makes up Oxygene: the recognition that it's all surface beauty with very little depth, yet for all that, an inability to break free of its overwhelming magnetic force. Jarre's mastery of his craft is almost brazenly displayed on the first half of the "Oxygene" suite. His command of orchestration, his innate gift for melodic invention and harmonic resolution, and his intimate knowledge of the synthesizer and its astounding sound-generating capabilities all testify to his particular genius at sound design. In a sense, Oxygene does for air what several years earlier Froese's Aqua did for water: its breathy synthetic string arrangements, surging pneumatic-pump rhythm machines, stratospheric noise sweeps and breezy pop melodies construct a sophisticated aural doppelganger of an element to which we are all native and imbued.
FAR EAST FAMILY BAND - PARALLEL WORLD (1976) Protégés of Klaus Schulze but disciples only of the Great Om at the center of the galaxy, Far East Family Band was the first Japanese group to be directly influenced by Germany's aerospace age music program, adding to it the exotic and mystical veneer of Zen and imbuing it with a distinctive oriental flavor that brought the cosmic down to earth. Parallel World, produced and mixed by Schulze himself, proved to be the group's finest hour. Alternately meditative and rocking, and proudly psychedelic in the best sense of the word, Parallel World lives up to the expectations implicit in its title: with the lights off, the lava lamps flowing and the incense burning, you'll feel as if you're being transported to another dimension. Much of the album's "spaciness" has to be credited to the inventive synth/keyboard work of Masanori Takahashi (later to be known simply as Kitaro) who at certain moments quite literally dominates Parallel World with massive drones and sweeps from his arsenal of Moogs and Korgs, adding counterpoint and coloration with mellotron and Hammond B-3. "Metempsychosis," the album's opening track, rises out of a fiery mist of howling winds and the modulated low-frequency hum of oscillators but quickly picks up a feverish momentum as various ethnic percussion instruments lock into a ritualistic trance-like pattern that evokes images of rites of passage and the endless cycles of transmigration. Ending in a chord swell of Hammond organ and crashing white noise, the track merges seamlessly with "Entering Times," its peals of distant thunder rolling underneath the randomly generated twittering of electronics. A wordless chant serves as the preamble to some of the group's finest cosmic jamming. Waves of synthesizer and phase-shifted guitar careen precipitously through stratospheric heights, only barely tethered to earth by the tight, almost funk-driven rhythm section. The frenetic coda collapses the piece into an electrical storm of lightning crashes and synthesized noise sweeps that slowly drift into silence. The epic-length title track (over 30 minutes and divided into six separate parts) shifts back and forth between atmospheric soundscapes and psychedelic space patrolling jams. It's as if one were in a Japanese garden floating through the interstellar void. Quite simply, Parallel World is an amazing trip.
KITARO - ASTRAL TRIP (1976)
Before he was the doyen of lobotomized new age androids everywhere, Kitaro was in fact a first-rate composer of some of the earthiest space music to ever emanate from this or any other solar system. His first solo album, released in early 1978, proves the assertion beyond a doubt. Even here at this embryonic stage, Kitaro had perfected the essence of his own idiosyncratic brand of cosmic music-cum-Zen metaphysics: sweeping portamento crescendos, tinkling crystalline synth bells, achingly beautiful melodic passages derived from the Japanese pentatonic scale, delicately crafted polytonal phrasings and the mystical aura created by a plethora of ancient Asian percussive and stringed instruments. Combined with his own particular mastery of the synthesizer, these diverse elements proved to be the blueprint for not only Kitaro's maiden voyage but virtually every other album released under his name well into the 21st century. Kitaro's singular genius however lay precisely in this fact: he was the first composer of the present era to successfully adapt the nearly infinite sound-creation possibilities of the synthesizer (a Western instrument) to the ritualistic, near sacred forms of both traditional Japanese and Indian music. By joining the Western predilection for mechanical precision (as manifested in the bleeps, burps, whines and whooshes of the synthesizer) with the Eastern emphasis on lyrical and emotional expansiveness, Kitaro effectively merged two musical traditions that, at least on the surface, seemed diametrically opposed. This stunning fusion of disparate aims and techniques is nowhere more beautifully illustrated than on the ten tracks that make up Astral Trip. "By the Sea Side" and "Soul of the Sea" are archetypal Kitaro songs: crashing surf, space bells, long washes of synthetic strings and haunting pentatonic leads astral project the listener through other times and other spaces. On the other hand, "Micro Cosmos" is Kitaro at his earth-sea-sky-fire fusion best. Mixing equal parts Shankar and Schulze, "Micro Cosmos" contracts the immensity of the galactic to the infinity of the atomic. The combination of sitar, traditional Japanese percussion instruments, electronic effects and soaring synthesizer leads creates a dramatic contrast in compositional styles that nevertheless manages to evoke Kitaro's Zen aesthetic: the dissolution of distinctions of style and variation and the recognition that all sound and music represent an endless continuum. The visionary "Dawn of the Astral" once again removes the listener from the terrestrial. Here Kitaro adds drums, bass and acoustic guitar to his shimmering synthesizer textures, creating a multi-colored auroral curtain that sweeps its way beyond the mundane to horizons of pure bliss. "Endless Dreamy World" takes the vision even farther to realms where the human senses themselves are no longer necessary or even adequate to perceive the awesome reality behind the veil of Maya. Its deft mix of arpeggiated koto and an arsenal of floating synthesizers simply overwhelms one's commitment to the earthly plane. As a consequence, listening to Astral Trip through your successive reincarnations will probably only serve to get you that much closer to nirvana and the final extinction of selfhood.
MICHAEL HOENIG - DEPARTURE FROM THE NORTHERN WASTELAND (1978)
In the wake left by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and the other celestial navigators of the 70's, Michael Hoenig's Departure from the Northern Wasteland, at least at the time, seemed little more than an insignificant blip on the radar screen among those titanic cruisers with which it shared the cosmic ocean. But time has been merciful to Hoenig. In retrospect, Departure is as good as anything Froese, Schulze or Göttsching was doing in the late 70's and vastly superior to second-stringers like Adelbert von Deyen or Roland Bocquet. The title track, strectched out over 20 minutes, begins with a droning low-frequency filter sweep that smoothly merges into a wash of phase-shifted string synthesizer, intertwining sequencer patterns and minimalist electronic percussion. Hoenig's almost billowy, cloud-like mini-moog lead lines glide effortlessly through the dense atmospheric haze like vapor trails, their subtle shifts in density and coloration adding a spectral quality to the mix. A swirling windscape and a thunderous noise crash, like an astral door opening and closing, shifts the piece abruptly to an aqueous environment where hydrothermic undercurrents pull the listener down to the floor of some alien sea where Hoenig's synth effects resemble the graceful movements of luminescent starfish and the gently swaying dances of submerged flora. Even at its epic length, one wishes this dreamy voyage to go on and on. Naturally, the rest of Departure isn't quite up to the almost impossible standard set by the title track. Still, both "Hanging Garden Transfer" and "Sun and Moon" are excellent companion pieces. Their up-tempo sequencing and orchestral arrangements give them a livelier, more dramatic feel-as if both were constructed for cinematic purposes. Either could've easily been a track from Tangerine Dream's Force Majeure or Schulze's Bodylove soundtrack. Despite such comparisons, Departure from the Northern Wasteland remains a beautifully crafted work in its own right, a lost gem that fortunately survived the synthesizer wars of the 70's.
ROBERT SCHRÖDER - HARMONIC ASCENDANT (1979)
Schröder was one of Klaus Schulze's first disciples to record on the master's own Innovative Communications label, and Harmonic Ascendant remains one of the two or three best albums I.C. ever released. Not content however to be merely a copyist, Schröder forged his own identity as a composer of romantic, richly-textured electronic music that owed as much to Chopin as it did to Schulze. The architectonic structure of the individual movements that make up the title track is immaculately conceived as an accumulation of suites, moving from an acoustic guitar/piano duet to a guitar/cello/string synthesizer trio, and so on. The entire piece almost resembles the work of a chamber ensemble, with Schröder's wonderfully impressionistic acoustic guitar and synthesizers providing a velvety cushion for the solo cello of Wolfgang Tieopold. Its shifting minor-key scales are evocative of gradually changing moods and feelings, tinged with the somber hues of remembrance and regret. Unlike "Harmonic Ascendant," both "Future Passing By" and "The Day after 'X'" are wholly electronic, featuring extensive use of vocoder and some hammering sequencer patterns. Sonically, either could've been a lost track from Schulze's brilliant X album. In contrast to the mournful romanticism of the title track, "Future Passing By" has a dark, brooding atmosphere. Whispered, electronically-treated voices and the dissonant clangor of ring-modulated oscillators build to a menacing climax. "The Day after 'X'," an obvious homage to Schulze himself, lifts off on an aggressive sequencer track and some up-tempo synth soloing, eventually cooling down like a rocket on re-entry to the earth's atmosphere. Schizophrenic at times, though thoroughly absorbing, Harmonic Ascendant possesses all the qualities of naïveté and precocity that one would expect from a talented devotee of the innocent experimentation that the synthesizer often engenders.
MICHAEL GARRISON - IN THE REGIONS OF SUNRETURN (1979)
In 1979 Michael Garrison emerged from the Pacific Northwest as one of the first American composers of contemporary electronic music to absorb and apply the teachings of Schulze, Hoenig and the other kings of the Berlin space cadet academy. Though undeniably derivative of the masters, In the Regions of Sunreturn still displays a freshness and unselfconsciousness of purpose that is sadly lacking in most other space music ventures of the time. Shorn of the excess baggage of classicism and imbued with a fever and clarity of vision often lacking in similar European efforts, Garrison's miniature epics of cosmic exploration and reconnaissance are akin to the typically idealistic American view of space as the final frontier. Dedicated to the infinite journeys of Voyager One and Two, In the Regions of Sunreturn was at the time the perfect aural antidote to the United States' flagging space program. "To the Other Side of the Sky" begins with the slow drift of noise sweeps and solar wind rising out of the void, a shower of meteors ticking on the metal skin of a spacecraft, before the repetitive hum of a pounding sequencer ignites the engines into a full powerburn. Pulling away from Earth's gravity, Garrison maneuvers his craft into deep space, his string synthesizers providing a prismatic glimpse of its awesome vistas. "The Search" quickens the pace considerably, its thrusters rocketing the listener vicariously through the asteroid belt. The perpetual pitter-patter of Garrison's Synare seems to mimic the churning power of a nuclear reactor as it releases more and more energy to the main engine drive. "Escape" reaches terminal velocity as Garrison's sequencers merge and overlap like colliding protons in a particle accelerator. Now at top speed, you're careening along on the portamento glides of Garrison's ARP 2600. And then the slow, pensive deceleration of "The Distance from Here." Becalmed on the solar tides, the white noise of Garrison's synthesizers congeals into billows of space mist as radio signals sweep out over the immeasurable vastness of eternity. The journey ends with the almost symphonic "The Voyage," its dramatic key shifts serving as tonal snapshots of worlds colliding, suns collapsing and the awesome deaths of stars. Using his synths as surrogates for brass instruments and sequencers as rolling and crashing orchestral percussion, Garrison accelerates the listener out of the solar system and into the great deserts between the stars. The voyage is just beginning.
EARTHSTAR - FRENCH SKYLINE (1979)
A minor classic in the space music pantheon, French Skyline was produced by Klaus Schulze and has his fingerprints all over it. Nominally the brainchild of Craig Wuest (whose equipment list reads like a Sam Ash advertisement), Earthstar nevertheless seemed at the time more like a Schulze avatar spreading the kosmische gospel. The sequencing, synth solos and the layered production techniques all come right out of the K.S. manual-on-how-to-create-cosmic-music. But French Skyline is so well executed that such accusations of gross imitation simply disappear like smoke when the crystal spike hits the plastic. The ironically titled "Latin Sirens Face the Wall" (which has absolutely no Latin influence at all) crescendos with a gorgeous host of seraphic choirs buffeted by surging winds, and the almost sleek Schulze-inspired lead synth runs propels the piece into earth orbit before a descent into a cyclonic storm of braying winds and synthesized bird shrieks. "Splendored Skies and Angels" adds some effective jazz-tinged lead guitar to the floating synth pads and massed angelic voices before fading directly into the four-part suite that makes up the title track. Arising out of a maze of seagull cries and a repeated airy flute phrase, the piece soars skyward on a repeated sequencer pattern surrounded on all sides by crashing winds and modulated synth effects. The addition of mellotron adds an almost orchestral feel that undeniably recalls the work of Schulze circa Timewind. The chime of Tibetan bells brings the suite to a close somewhere high above towering cloudscapes where only the echoes of rushing and rumbling winds can now be heard, a mellifluous flute left to spiral through the stratocumulus froth like a solitary bird in flight. French Skyline may be derivative of Schulze, Froese and other Berlin cosmonauts but at least the group has the good taste to choose its models wisely.
MICHAEL STEARNS - PLANETARY UNFOLDING (1981)
Michael Stearns was one of the first American synthesists to tune his synthesizers to the sounds of the Berlin School. His late 70's albums Ancient Leaves and Sustaining Cylinders are about as close as any Yank has ever come to achieving that Teutonic "heaviness" that resonates in the work of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and just about any other Kraut who plays synth. But Planetary Unfolding is Stearns' cosmic masterpiece, a vision of evolutionary processes on the grandest of scales-from our subatomic origins all the way to our intergalactic destiny. Composed and played primarily on the Mighty Serge modular, Planetary Unfolding exhibits both a compositional immediacy and a studied grasp of synthesizer mechanics that places it in the same stratospheric heights scaled by Schulze. This is evident from the first bubbling synth sounds of "In the Beginning" that rise out of some primordial inland sea-a soup of organic molecules struggling to replicate and combine on an earth as yet devoid of sentient life. Its steady though somnolent tempo supports a graceful four-chord motif whose organ-like swells are almost reverential in tone, as if one were witnessing first-hand the mystery of life itself unfolding. "Life in the Gravity Well" jettisons the listener to the distant reaches of the galaxy, its swirling synthesizers and disembodied operatic voices serving as counterpoint to the rumbling undertow of subharmonic frequencies. In contrast, the serene and graceful "As the Earth Kissed the Moon" almost has the measured pace of a gavotte, as if Stearns were sonically representing the orbits of the planets as choreographed movements in a star-flung ballet. The sequenced building block sounds of "Something's Moving" slowly gather momentum until a cascading noise sweep reintroduces the leit motif that began the voyage. Moving through wave after wave of rising and falling synths the piece drifts into silence on bursts of kinetic energy-the ceaseless engines of the élan vital murming at the heart of the galaxy.
BERNARD XOLOTL - JOURNEY TO AN ORACLE (1981)
Frenchman Xolotl has toiled in the asteroid mines for over three decades with little exposure and even less recognition, but his first few releases on the Fortuna label in the early 80's contain some of the best space music you've probably never heard. Though deeply indebted to Schulze and Riley, Xolotl's music transcends its influences and becomes in the process an intensely personal expression of his commitment to the inherently cosmic relationship between sound and its metaphysical origins. Perhaps this is why Journey to an Oracle still sounds fresh and vital over a quarter of a century after its release: it's a voyage of wide-eyed wonder and naive self-discovery, using the mysteries of the cosmos as a backdrop. The icy drift of "Cometary Wailing" is a near flawless crystallization of the subject matter implied by the title. A solid mass of languorous, sweeping synthesizers, it hurls glacial-like through leagues of black space, leaving in its fiery wake a shroud of mist and vapor that completely envelops the listener in clouds of freezing liquid hydrogen. "Gliding thru the Cosmophonic Dome" is equally impressive in its expansive scope. Beginning with a simple eight note sequencer pattern, the piece quickly accelerates to a sustained velocity, its surging trajectory shifting almost imperceptibly with subtle rhythmic and tonal alterations that suggest careening passages through gossamer nebulae, ringed planetary systems and other celestial phenomena. As with the finest of Klaus Schulze's stellar voyages, "Gliding thru the Cosmophonic Dome" is utterly convincing in its sonic tableau of astral terrain beyond the grasp of ordinary experience. The wraith-like "Venusian Aurora" shimmers like the atmospheric condition implied by its evocative title. Xolotl's tremulous, flickering synthesizers create a prismatic curtain of sound whose timbral colors ripple and melt as if the chemical fabric of some alien sky were being dissolved and restained. The title track is deliberately minimalist in structure, with Xolotl's chiming guitar set against a backdrop of swelling organ and unobtrusive synthesizer. The piece spirals continuously around several simple motifs, much like a Terry Riley composition, achieving an oceanic serenity that's never trite or vacuous. If you can find it, Journey to an Oracle is well worth the search.
NEURONIUM - CHROMIUM ECHOES (1982)
Spanish spacers Neuronium released several excellent albums in the late 70's and early 80's of what leader Michael Huygen called "psychotronic music." Especially noteworthy are Quasar 2C361 (1977) and Digital Dream (1980), but the group's fifth album from 1982 Chromium Echoes is Neuronium at its rococo-electro best. Neuronium's vision of cosmic music combines the ornate baroqueness of Vangelis with the lyrical melodicism of Jarre, filtering both through a kind of high-tech neo-romanticism that is simultaneously impressionistic and surrealistic. But where Vangelis falls prey to symphonic bombast and Jarre to cloying sentimentality, Neuronium manage to avoid either trap by embracing the idée fixe of the Berlin School of Electronic Music: the synthesizer as an instrument of sound rather than a souped-up, overglorified organ. The minor key refrain of "Prelude," the album's opening track, achieves an intensely brooding, deeply melancholic mood that befits the hopeless plight of a marooned astronaut on a desolate alien world. Huygen's sweeping lead synth, augmented by bubbling and buzzing electronic effects and some haunting acoustic guitar, evidences his preference for simple yet evocative melodic phrasing. "Chromium Echoes," however, is far more ambitious in design and makes use of the group's full arsenal of equipment: an introductory vocoded space text is recited over a squall of pinging effects and ring modulated chimes, eventually morphing into a stately saraband of sequenced rhythms, precise but understated drumming and Huygen's wildly modulated synth runs. Impressions of liquid metal seas and valleys of moonstone and emerald conjure visions of landscapes from Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. Perhaps even more ambitious is the 18-minute space anthem "The Neutron Age," a pure synthetic assault on the central nervous system. Multi-layered synths stream and flow like rivers of diamond and agate, their sinewy courses controlled and directed by the steady throb of an arpeggiated sequencer pattern that stands fast like some great mineral formation at the center of the eddying currents of floating electrons. Esoteric yet accessible, Chromium Echoes achieves a tenuous balance between lyrical harmony and lysergic atonality.
BRIAN ENO - APOLLO (1983)
A late entry into the space race, 1983's Apollo nevertheless sees Eno making up ground by the parsec. Moody, celebratory, playful, haunting, moving-Apollo elicits a myriad of emotional reactions to the glorious rise and pathetic decline of the American space age. On Apollo, Eno's predilection for found sounds, odd resonances and oblique harmony perfectly evokes the mysteries of space and the utter strangeness of alien environments. Pieces like "The Secret Place" and "Matta," with their eerie animal shrieks and grunts, their chilling backwash of icy strings and their muffled bleeps from radio telescopes, become aural portraits of the desolation and austere beauty of the lunar landscape. Yet "An Ending (Ascent)" and "Drift" capture also the awe-inspiring grandeur of the spaces between the stars; their slowly evolving key changes anchored to persistent low frequency drones create a sensation of gradual momentum that can only be measured on a scale that dwarfs the merely human comprehension of magnitude. One of the supreme delights of Apollo, however, is Eno's attempt to conceptualize the NASA missions to the moon as extensions of America's Old West frontier zeitgeist: as bold, brave, though hazardous, explorations of uncharted territory. To this end, the addition of Daniel Lanois' Nashville-tinged guitar and pedal steel on "Silver Morning," "Deep Blue Day" and "Weightless" provides a gritty but somehow appropriate counterbalance to Eno's translunar soundscapes, giving this suite of songs an earthy, indelibly human touch and perhaps meant as an ironic reminder that in our explorations of other worlds, we'll discover there only what we take with us from our own. The wholly static drift of "Stars," the album's elegiac coda, suggests the mournful andante of the constellations as they wheel perpetually above all human endeavor, permanent reminders in their predestined orbits that even their time on the stage in the long drama of the universe is but a brief, flickering moment.
MICHAEL SHRIEVE - TRANSFER STATION BLUE (1984)
Though credited to Shrieve alone, Transfer Station Blue is as much a Klaus Schulze album as it is Shrieve's. In addition to playing all the synthesizers, the tracks on Transfer Station Blue bear Schulze's unmistakable signature: slowly accumulating masses of synthetic sound driven by spiraling sequencer engines and augmented with meteor showers of spinning electronic effects that ricochet off the dense, gleaming fuselage that forms the structural center of each of the album's four tracks. Shrieve may be piloting this ship but Schulze is most certainly the navigator, plotting each sonic destination and course change with the relentless logic of his wave tables and vector coordinates. Shrieve's astounding percussion technique-like a four-armed android behind his customized drum kit-provides the propulsive impetus that thrusts "Communiqué: 'Approach Spiral'" to the outer edges of the galaxy. Schulze's transwarp-powered sequencers and hovering synth pads provide both directional stability and atmospheric counterpoint. "Nucleotide" is far more experimental in design. Shrieve's programming of his Simmons pads, creating uncanny drum and undrum-like sounds, gives the piece a musique concrete feel, though Schulze's airy synths provide a tonal center that acts as a kind of centrifuge, keeping it balanced between chaotic noise and regulated harmony. "Transfer Station Blue" really warps out to velocities far beyond light speed. The addition of some ultra-funky guitar and bass charts to Shrieve's superhuman drumming and the cosmic foam of Schulze's hypersonic synth engines creates a space groove so infectious you'll need a spike full of Thorazine to stop your ass from twitching. Perhaps as a rejoinder to the nasty space funk of "Transfer Station Blue," "View from the Window" is deliberately subdued and pensive. Without Shrieve's frenetic percussion, "View from the Window" floats through the vast and profound silences of the deep, borne aloft on the cooling exhaust of Schulze's decelerating synthesizers and the simple but effective rhythm guitar of Kevin Shrieve. It's like a last mournful look at the Milky Way before drifting out forever into the limitless ocean of intergalactic space.