Germany’s Cluster still makes heads spin three decades on

Very few bands can be considered the grandfathers of New Age, ambient techno, electro-pop, and underground noise. But Germany's Cluster, a duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, spawned not only those variegated genres, but also a slew of others in their 30-plus years of music-making. Traces of their profound sound can be heard informing everything from the scabrous Wolf Eyes to shiny DJ culture. Moebius and Roedelius have constantly explored innerspace sound and the cutting edge of electronic instrumentation to make music that is thoroughly modern, so that even their earliest endeavors continue to sound relevant in the 21st century.

The musicians first met via German electronic music pioneer Conrad Schnitzler in 1970. They were part of a Berlin art collective that became a breeding ground of sorts for that era's emergent kosmische scene ("cosmic," i.e., what the Germans called it instead of "Krautrock"), which spawned future legends like Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, and Guru Guru. The three formed Kluster soon after, unleashing abrasive and amoebic sprawls of synthesizer noise before Schnitzler departed, the duo changing that K to a C. Cluster's first record, 1971's 71, captured Moebius and Roedelius at an early apex, deploying new-fangled synthesizers and analog components to sound like something both plunked down from outer space and bubbled up from primordial tarpits: gurgling, alien, sinister, ever-mutating.

Soon after, the pair left Berlin and relocated to the pastoral climes of Forst, where they whiled away their days experimenting with new sounds and technologies. Already renowned for their spacy explorations, in 1974 Cluster released its classic Zuckerzeit (Sugar Time), which revealed that the duo had morphed yet again. Opting for drum-machine-propelled ditties topped with several layers of sweet, keening keyboard melodies, and served up at pop music lengths, they laid the groundwork for percolating electronic-infused pop some months before Kraftwerk's Autobahn took to the charts.

Cluster: Krautrock stands the test of time.
Alison Childs
Cluster: Krautrock stands the test of time.

Around the same time, Cluster's music caught the ear of reformed ex–Roxy Music glam rocker Brian Eno. Enamored of their low-key work (which no doubt presaged his own take on ambient music) Eno took a pilgrimage to Forst, where the trio collaborated on 1977's Cluster & Eno, as well as two subsequent albums that infused otherwise gentle soundscapes with traces of melancholia, plaintiveness, and disquiet. Simultaneously, Moebius and Roedelius began playing with Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. Recently unearthed concert tapes (released by local label Water as Harmonia 1974) of the trio show them making rapturous throbs of noise and melody, improvised yet highly rhythmic and mesmeric.

While Cluster wasn't the first two-man band (never mind that they also collaborated well with others), it presented a streamlined dynamic for how four hands can unleash a wealth of sounds: Theirs is the template for bands like Daft Punk and Mouse on Mars, or for production duos like the DFA and Neptunes. And whereas many of their contemporaries either wafted off into New Age irrelevance or else packed it in altogether, Cluster continued to issue intriguing work. Though there hasn't been an official Cluster album since 1994, Moebius and Roedelius influenced the new bands of that era, too (see Stereolab and Tortoise). And lest it be forgotten just how raw and punishing those earliest efforts were, Cluster headlines a night at New York's annual caterwauling No Fun Fest alongside cantankerous noisemakers like Thurston Moore, Hair Police, the Skaters, and the Haters. Let's see your grandpa do that.

 
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