Some electronic music is supposed to be danced to. Tangerine Dream’s 1970s albums are supposed to be anti-danced to. They are monoliths of sound and moving at all to them feels wrong: you can imagine Edgar Froese’s ghost staring in disapproval at your breath, and your heartbeat.
1976’s Stratosfear (their third major-label release on Virgin) sees the band changing. The first Tangerine Dreams were formless abyssic oceans of synthesiser noise with unusual sonic lifeforms flickering under the water (Alpha Centauri, from 1971, is the only ambient record I can think of that contains a drum solo). Once they signed to Virgin, their sound focused and tightened: Stratosfear, near the end of their classic period, has more overt melodies and rhythms. And unusually for early Dream, if you divide the running time by the number of tracks, you get a single-digit number.
“Stratosfear” is a forceful, climbing driving mini-epic, with a fun suspended/Egyptian pentatonic II melodic hook. It’s the most Vangelis-sounding track on the album. “The Big Sleep in Search of Hades” has less going on inside it, although there’s a fair amount of acoustic guitar for the prog rock fans. “3AM” has a slow-building intro that looks back to their earliest releases, though the tempo picks up soon after.
“Invisible Limits” is the longest track: 11 minutes of Pink Floyd worship with electric guitar and drumming, and a recurring pan flute motif. Tangerine Dream were the spacey, ambient wing of the German style of “krautrock”, and while some of this stuff is funky (Neu! Can, and certain Bowie songs circa 1977), Tangerine Dream is not. It cannot be emphasized enough that this music consists of bubbling 16th notes locked to a grid amid huge tidal waves of sound, and although it has some progressive rock influence (there are live examples of Edgar Froese attempting guitar solos, to dismal results), it has no groove at all. It’s what rock music would sound like if it hadn’t been influenced by jazz and RnB. The music is so white it’s #FFFFFF.
“Kosmische musik” (a term Froese coined) might seem very far removed from 80s hip hop, but they are both styles based upon a single piece of gear. For hip hop, it was the E-MU SP-12/SP-1200 sampler. For kosmische music, it was the modular synthesizer. Whether it was the Moog or the more portable EMS VCS, these synths and their sounds were everywhere in 70s rock. The sonic possibilities seemed endless. It’s not surprising that Tangerine Dream would adopt spacey-themes: synthesisers indeed seemed like a space-race breakthrough for music.
But this brought danger: were bands relying too much on (soon to be dated) technological wizardry? And yeah, a lot of early synth-powered music now provokes a reaction of “okay, there’s a delay effect on your notes. Is there anything here aside from that one trick, which can now be produced in 2 seconds with a VST and which I’ve heard a million times?” Like prog rock, it became a bloated scene, too in love with itself.
In the 80s, krautrock faded from prominence, and its ambient wing became a hundred fluttering feathers, all of them hoping to land in new markets. By the 80s, Jean-Michel Jarre was making synthpop, Vangelis was more famous for his movie soundtracks than his original albums, and Tangerine Dream were kind of playing it both ways. They toured heavily, in unconventional places. A 1974 performance at Reims cathedral (with Nico) ended in disaster. 6,000 tickets were sold for a 2,000-head venue, and hundreds of stoned hippies pissed against the historic stonework. I don’t think it’s normal for ambient musicians to get excommunicated by the Pope, but Edgar Froese managed it.
“Saintly man that he was, Father Bernard Goureau intoned more or less as follows: “It is true that the youth smoked marijuana in order to better enter into communication with Tangerine Dream’s sound and the spectacle at large; it is also true that others, to satisfy a natural obligation, urinated against the columns of the cathedral; and finally, it is again true that to combat the cold, couples were seen in kissing embraces. But it is equally true that some 6,000 young people, remaining sat upon the floor for three hours in the dark, had enjoyed the music and could have caused much more serious damage, with far less decorum.” Amen.” https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2015/11/nico-tangerine-dream-feature
Ambient synth-based music existed in a cultural blind spot in the 1980s: it was seemingly everywhere, but nobody listened to it. Or rather, they watched it instead of listening to it: it was deemed worthless unless accompanied by a laser light show or Blade Runner. Few people valued it as music, in and of itself. Tangerine Dream had journeyed out into space and found it to be a lightless dead end.
Ten years later, ambient would undergo a commercial resurgence (both Enigma’s “Sadeness: Part I” and The Orb’s U.F.Orb topped their respective UK charts at the start of the 90s), but it was a hip, modern ambient based on house music and samples, not long hair and synthesizer solos. Soon the world-crushing success of Enya sucked all the air out of that scene anyway. It’s possible that A Day Without Rain shifted more units than every Tangerine Dream album combined.
Tangerine Dream now seems old and quaint, like those probes we sent out in the seventies. Nothing ages as rapidly as the future. But in a weird way, their best music has a strangeness that stands outside age. They never wanted to be the mainstream, and even when they were () it seemed like a happy accident.
They were a German, and their English song titles – like their music – is bafflingly correct yet very odd. Stratosfear continues this tradition. “The Big Sleep in Search of Hades” suggests Raymond Chandler in the Greek underworld (does Philip Marlowe get paid two drachmas a day, plus expenses?), and “3 A.M. at the Border of the Marsh From Okefenokee”…shouldn’t from be to? All the words are spelled correctly, but it’s not English.
Tangerine Dream were never a band from Earth. I don’t know where they’re actually from, but their attempts to connect with the customs of our planet have the air of a mistake-filled travel guide written by aliens. They always had at least one foot in some alien world or another. Stratosfear is an excellent example of where they were, and charts some of the places they had still to visit.
There’s an inaccessible, inhuman quality to a lot of this music. But it also challenges you to rise above your biological limits. Bigbrained people sometimes talk about “anthropomorphism”, or giving huge and mysterious concepts a human face. God is a bearded man. GPT-3 is the Terminator. The effect always diminishes whatever’s being spoken about: making the numinous and grand small and ugly. Humans are limited creatures in the end (which may be coming soon), and our horizons are very small. Tangerine Dream swaps the signified and the signifier. They dehumanize music, dehumanize space. They invite us to ponder a glowing, diaphanous eternity in which we never were.
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