Monday, January 24, 2011

Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Jesus "Kraut" Superstar

Is Hans-Joachim Roedelius the savior of what we have come to know as Krautrock? The point is certainly debatable. What is undeniable is his impact. Even stronger is how his influence continues to reverberate through music, and how little is known about the artist himself.

The obvious place to start (for us beginners) is David Bowie’s 1976 album Low. The amazing landscapes the second side describes were not created in a vacuum, or by Brian Eno. While Eno’s production of the record is often credited for the incredible sound and vision of tracks such as “Warszawa,” the template was created much earlier. Not only did Ian Curtis name the first incarnation of Joy Division as Warsaw in specific tribute to this very song, he modeled his entire career on the deep, dark territories the tune inhabits.

It came largely from the inappropriately named, yet hugely influential Krautrock scene. And the godfather of that music remains Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

Roedelius had already let the darker aspects of his musical personality go by this point. His involvement in a 1968 hippie-era commune/band - who called themselves the Zodiac Free Arts Lab was enough. In 1970, Roedelius formed Kluster. The trio consisted of Roedelius, Dieter Moebius, and Conrad Schnitzler. Their original three LPs, Klopzeichen, Zwei-Ostereinand, and Eruption are collected as a moderately priced triple CD set titled Kluster 1970 - 1971.

Even with a wide-open mind tuned to the avant-garde, this is some wild material. It also just happens to be the reason that Roedelius is so well regarded in Krautrock circles. I have a lot of respect for CAN, and Kraftwerk. But nobody was making music like this back then.

Even a cursory listen to the first track, “Kluster” will tell you the story. It is a far cry from what other so-called Krautrockers were doing at the time, not to mention what English and American bands were up to in those heavily stoned years. There are a total of six (count ’em) songs. The limited lyrics are in the German language.

Roedelius and Moebius left Schnitzler behind in 1971 to form Cluster, which became fully instrumental. The Bureau B label has just reissued their first album, and in many ways it continues the unrelenting experimentalism of the original band. Cluster ‘71 is a far more “listenable” record than the earlier ones were. All three tracks are titled “Untitled,” but it is the second one (15:43) that is clearly the precursor to Bowie’s ‘Warszawa.”

When it came time for Cluster II (1972), the basic ideas had mutated even further. I am convinced that when Brian Eno was wearing feather boas, and adding his “colorations” to Roxy Music, he was listening to this one. As hip as the dude was, he knew in his heart that this was where it really was at. Cluster had now moved up to a full six songs for an LP.

More importantly, Roedelius and Moebius figured out what they really wanted to do as a group. In many ways, the duo had reached a pinnacle of sorts. Cluster II is fantastic. The third Cluster album Zuckerzeit (1973) is another beauty, and was something of a collaboration with Neu! Guitarist Michael Rother. With Rother in tow, Roedelius and Moebius changed their name to Harmonia.

Brian Eno was such a fan, he got front row seats to a Harmonia gig, just to be invited on stage. Harmonia & Eno ‘76 contains all 12 tracks they recorded together later that year. Unfortunately, it took until 1997 for those recordings to be released to the public.

Cluster & Eno (1977) was the one we got at the time. It was recorded live, and inside we find the full transition. All four artists had moved into a completely different space together. The reckless excess has given way to a much more peaceful sound.

Please do not take those words lightly. It was actually two years after this album that Eno “created” so-called ambient music (a hilarious concept in itself) with his Music For Airports.

There is no question that Roedelius had toned it down a bit. I cannot help but to think of another musical hero of mine, John Coltrane. Had he been given a few more years, who is to say where his music would have gone? My guess is that it would have become much quieter, and much deeper.

With Hans-Joachim Roedelius, the music becomes very personal. You hear it most especially in his series of Selbsportraits, of which Volumes I & II have also just been re-issued by Bureau B. I was originally released by Sky in 1979 and II followed in 1980. There is a beauty to these recordings which is impossible to deny.

The reissues of Cluster ‘71, Selbsportraits I, and II are nicely packaged introductions to a man who in many ways invented what we have come to know as Krautrock. Do yourself a favor and discover just how deeply his music has affected what we hear today.

Article first published as Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Jesus "Kraut" Superstar on Blogcritics.

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