Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Music Miscellanea

My Schulze Month

Following the sad news that Klaus Schulze had died, I decided that, since I hadn’t revisited his music for a few years, it was time to assess the great man’s work – and in chronological order of my CD collection. This numbers getting on for a couple of dozen disks, so I was looking forward to an enjoyable time.

I began with Irrlicht, which I played with some trepidation given that all I could remember of the album was its abstract, “primitive” sound. The first piece still does little for me, and is basically the sound of an inspired, resourceful man experimenting. The second piece however really grabbed me, with its wonderfully eerie atmosphere. Cyborg I still found to be remarkable, especially the rhythmic quality of the synths and the overall atmosphere of cybernetics. However I had forgotten how comparatively poor Picture Music is, with its simplistic, laboured style and poor soloing. Blackdance was better than I remembered, a cleverly composed set with much to recommend it. This album is perhaps the first indication of what Schulze would go on to do.

Timewind is generally thought to be one of his greatest achievements, and it is pretty good, but I suspect a lot of its legend rests upon how well it was received at the time. The sequenced side is okay, the other side pleasant enough, verging on interesting. But it is with Moondawn that Schulze’s works of brilliance begin – a leap from being good to stunning, and groundbreaking with it. Moondawn was the second Schulze LP that I bought as a university student, some time around 1981, and it blew my mind. It still does – an exceptional work.

I’m no great fan of the two Body Love soundtracks, which stand on interesting but well-trodden ground, so after them I played one of his all-time classics, Mirage. This really is a visionary album, its intense musicality matching its originality of concept; another stunner which stands up to its legend, 45 years after being released. Yet the album which followed, “X”, is in my view his masterpiece, an extraordinary melding of synths, orchestra, drumming and percussion, with the lead track still a breathless, head-spinning tour de force.

Dune followed. I can’t listen to the vocal side, but the cello side is really lovely. I used to have the 1980 live album on vinyl, but haven’t got it on CD, yet I remember well the terrific opening track, with its oscillating, fast-paced sequences.

1980 proved for Schulze to be something of a crossing into new territory – digital territory. Dig It was the first Schulze LP I bought, not long after it was released, and it stands up to scrutiny more than ever. The first side especially is another run through amazing sounds and textures, given their futuristic sheen by Schulze’s new digital mode. I still love this album, but I love Trancefer even more – another work of genius, I feel. The beauty of the compositions is matched by the playing and the gorgeous synths, especially the strings. This is in fact the Schulze album I’ve played most often; I never get tired of it. Afterwards, I played his last truly great work, Audentity, which still sounds fantastic; all four wonderful sides of it.

1983 for me began a Schulze decline. Angst is not bad, but replaying it now, it does sound somewhat empty, even for film music. I like Inter*Face a lot however. This is a really good album, with much to enjoy, especially on the first side.

Next up in my collection is En=Trance. I don’t think this has aged well, though the first track is a bit of an earworm, for which respect is due! The rest of it however is forgettable. Miditerranean Pads though is better than I remembered, its sound world uniquely Schulze.

Back in the 1990s I did have other Schulze LPs and CDs, but not any more. Beyond Recall in particular was a message to me that Schulze had gone somewhere I didn’t want to follow. I really disliked that album, which to my ears sounded trite and lazy. Nor did I bother with any of the collaborations, what I heard of them lacking originality and style.

So the next CD in my collection is Moonlake from 2005. This was a superb return to form, which playing for the first time in years I much enjoyed. I think though that Kontinuum is his late period highlight, all three tracks beautifully composed, played and arranged. This is an album I could play a lot, like Trancefer. I have to say though that Shadowlands is very much a work of two halves, the sprawling first track dull and pointless after ten minutes, the latter two tracks, especially the third, beautifully composed.

I have heard excerpts from Deus Arrakis, and they sound pretty good, so I will be buying the album. This trip down Schulze memory lane has really made me think about the great man’s approach to music. I think several factors made him brilliant and unique, the first being that he was a drummer; he once said all electronic musicians should spend some time with drums and percussion. But he undoubtedly had that special, unique quality which often can’t be analysed in the truly great musicians – his style, his ability to blaze trails with the rapidly evolving world of synths, his commitment to progression and exploration. He was a vital part of my youth and my own musical development, and he will be much missed… but what a legacy!

The Paths Of Artists

Yesterday’s news of the death of Klaus Schulze has made me think on why he was so different to his peers. Really, only Edgar Froese equalled him for trailblazing imagination. That series of albums from 1976 to 1982 is matched only by the equivalent series by Tangerine Dream.

I think the reason those two stand out and have remained beloved and inspirational is their ability to explore. Both were lucky: in the right place at the right time. But luck isn’t everything; you have to have protean talent also. Yet there is a third ingredient necessary to understand the importance of Schulze to the world of music. He was exploring music through the ’70s and early ’80s, delighting in it, fearless and fascinated, and as a consequence creating an extraordinary catalogue of recordings. When listening to Moondawn, Mirage, “X,” Dune, Dig It, Trancefer and Audentity we are hearing a man forging a path through unknown territory, delighting in his own creativity and delighting us too.

Part of the reason those albums are so remarkable is that they weren’t easy to make. Froese and Schulze had to struggle to do what they did. They fought their way through that unknown territory, they demanded the energy and vision of themselves, and as a consequence they created music which still resonates today, fifty years later.

I recognise true artists by this ability to explore and progress. You see it in Schulze and Froese, but also in Kate Bush, David Bowie and Bjork. These are creative people who cannot sit on their laurels, who have to be progressing into new territory. It is a mark of greatness. In literature, I see it in Gene Wolfe and Kim Stanley Robinson, both of whom cut a broad swathe through the norms of their time. In art, I see it in Ernst, Picasso and Turner.

True artists don’t need a pre-existing path; they make their own. They are artistic explorers, pioneers, blazing trails and breaking new ground. Schulze was the perfect example of this: compelled to explore, always wanting to move on, taking his fans with him. It did not last forever, of course, for by the mid-1980s he had lost a lot of his strength and nerve. I think the advent of digital synthesisers made everything a bit too easy; certainly that was true for Tangerine Dream. But a work of musical brilliance like “X” remains brilliant for all time. Once set, it endures, because it says something of universal relevance and importance.

Never stand still. Always seek new ground. Make music for your listeners, not for your fans. Write novels for your readers, not for your fans. True artists only move forwards. A true artist leads.

RIP Klaus Schulze

I vividly remember buying my first Klaus Schulze LP. It was 1980 and I was a first year student at university, my mind opened at school a couple of years earlier to Tangerine Dream, Yes, Genesis and ELP. It was Tangerine Dream who drew me most though, and when I realised Schulze was making the same kind of music I sensed good omens. A friend of mine at uni who had attended the same 1980 Tangerine Dream gig in London that I was at spoke of music so repetitive and mesmeric you could see its patterns in the grooves. I was hooked! Already a fan of Steve Reich and Tangerine Dream, I knew Schulze had to be investigated.

One day in 1980 I walked down to my local record shop in Egham and spotted a blue LP called Dig It. I bought it, and was amazed at what I heard. This was music the like of which I had never heard before: ice cold, hypnotic, trailblazing. I loved it. Some weeks later I made one of my regular trips to Virgin Records in Oxford Street and there spotted an LP called Moondawn. This, even more than Dig It, was the album which told me Schulze was a rare genius indeed. To this day the track Floating in particular is a jaw-dropping listen, which has lost none of its power in the forty-six years since Schulze made it.

But an even more gobsmacking discovery lay in wait. One of the albums I bought next was Schulze’s magnum opus “X”, which surely must be in the running for greatest electronic music album ever made. And there was more! Between 1976 and 1982 Schulze released a series of albums each extraordinary in their scope, vision, musicality, originality and trailblazing qualities. It matches Tangerine Dream’s run of albums between those same years – music the like of which we’ll never hear again.

Those were ground-breaking days, when musicians of brilliance in the right place at the right time could make incredible music. Schulze was one of those. He followed his own unique vision, taking his fans with him wherever he went. Rightly is he called the Godfather of EM. Part of his brilliance came from his experience as a drummer, allowing him to bring the physicality of drumming into his music, a physicality which all his works of genius exhibit – even the relatively ambient Mirage, which at the end of side one freezes the listener’s body. Schulze said that he thought every electronic musician should drum for a while, that the strictures and compositional benefits be felt.

After 1982 and the extraordinary Audentity, there did not seem to be quite the same level of invention and progression in his music however. The music was good, often very good, but it lacked the magic touch. A brief resurgence at the end of 1980s suggested good things, but actually those two albums have not worn terribly well, and what followed through the 1990s – insipid collaborations and far too much sampling – turned me off his music. There was a return to form for Moonlake and in particular on the marvellous Kontinuum, but little else of note.

His death leaves electronic music mourning one of its true greats. Yes, he was the right man at the right time, and he was lucky, but there was nobody else like him, and they say the cream always rises to the top. Schulze was unique, remarkable, visionary, and the legacy of music he leaves, especially from that eight year run, will never be matched. I can listen to Trancefer today and still have my breath taken away by its sheer beauty. I still feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck when the opening notes of Friedrich Nietzsche hove into view, and I still adore the magic of his winter Mirage. That’s the mark of genius. It won’t be forgotten.

“X” – six musical biographies…

New TD Review

Rather chuffed to read this new review of the Tangerine Dream book.

Tangerine Dream new review

Very nice new review here of my Tangerine Dream book.

TD book new review

Great review here from Prog Magazine: ‘Palmer… is an eloquent narrator and applies strong and perceptive analysis to Edgar Froese and co’s evolution from instrument– mangling experimentalists to futurist electronic visionaries… Walkthroughs of the albums’ contents are offset with archive quotes from the key players (and a couple of original interviews), and illuminating context… Palmer’s dedication to digging up that kind of long-lost material results in a compelling deep dive into the story of a band whose influence continues to be felt half a century later.’

First TD review

First review is in for my Tangerine Dream book, from The Afterword culture blog: ‘A good read for lovers of this unique band and their inimitable blend of elecrtonica and prog, which has really, for the most part, stood the test of time pretty well.’

Dreamer of Tangerines

The books have arrived!

Dreamy Saturday

Edgar RIP

My contributor copies arrived this morning…

Tangerine Dream on the way

My book on Tangerine Dream is now in production. Here’s a look at the front cover.