Cluster – Zuckerzeit

If you reach your hand into a box full of Cluster albums and select a random record, you’re bound to come out with something either pretty good to fantastic. Zuckerzeit is Cluster’s introduction to drum machines, albeit not the dance variety.

These drums shift and burble. They croak and whoosh. They are rudimentary in their design, and evoke an other-worldliness. There are bits of shakers here and there—a wooden block appears out of the murkiness in places. Through it all there is a dichotomy at work: dark, mumbling keys vs. bright, sparkly synths. It can feel at times as though you’re listening to this music underwater, or while traveling at the speed of sound.

This could be all dismissed as symptomatic of the year in which this was recorded (1974) and the infancy of the technology if Cluster weren’t so crafty. There’s a deliberateness behind this dichotomy. Up to this point, Cluster had recorded spacey, airy ambient music, and in the case of Cluster ’71, built on droning feedback and waves of static.

Take the song, “Rosa,” for example. Here we have shakers moving in and out of the mix while plucky synth leads dance above a deep and menacing bass line pooling below. The underbelly of the song, reverberations of unknown origin, slide in and out of our peripherals. It would feel a bit off the cuff if it wasn’t so intentional.

This soundscape is repeated in “Fotschi Tong,” to a bit of a higher degree. There, we hear Cluster push the drums slightly more to the forefront. They drift in and out of the mix with a bit more immediacy, wrapped in a slightly hazy reverb and heavy echo. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these songs, and “Fotschi Tong” in particular, is that although they feel repetitive in nature–the body of the song being composed by three notes–the appendages wiggle and writhe outside its core, creating new textures obscuring the inherent sameness.

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Song to song, the album feels as a piece rather than separate entities coming together. The recording methods are incredibly consistent, even if the mood and feeling of each song is representative of itself. They all culminate on the album closer, “Heisse Lippen,” in fantastic manner.

It hits you with an immediacy as if announcing that everything proceeding was in preparation for this one song. It’s short, and leaves as abruptly as it enters. But what is left behind is an imprint on the listener’s ears and mind of something other. A foray into the new and burgeoning electronic field that would change the way we listen to music moving forward. And despite all that came after, the singularity of Zuckerzeit continues to amaze and inspire.

Yellow Magic Orchestra – Technodelic

“This must be the ugliest piece of bread I’ve ever eaten.”


And with that, begins Yellow Magic Orchestra’s fifth—and arguably best—album, Technodelic. As opposed to the object of their disgust in that opening line, the album sparkles and is an absolutely gorgeous set of electronic pop music from a group at the very height of its abilities, and whose intent appears to be to throw a bit of a wrench in their creative process.

As such, it’s a bit of a departure for the trio, dialing up and broadening the sonics while at the same time refining their approach in the studio. The comparisons to Kraftwerk had always been there, and were perhaps justified, but Technodelic put those comparisons to bed permanently by reaching beyond the motorik, blippy aesthetic of previous albums and embracing a sound suite wider in scope, but a method more succinct and precise.

It’s not that some of those previously similar elements didn’t find their way into the album. It is an electronic album, at any rate, in an era whose music in many ways emerged from the shadows cast by Kraftwerk. But there’s just so much more going on here than the minimalist electronic pop so closely associated with Kraftwerk’s back catalog. YMO sounds untethered by their previous touchstones.

The feeling one gets from the album with respect to their output to that point is deliberate, sharp, expansive, and eye-opening. It’s hard to imagine Kraftwerk, for all its brilliance and innovation, constructing something like “Seoul Music,” with its percussive vocal samples, looped melody, and chugging bassline—or the rolling piano and faux trumpets of “Stairs.”

The album notes YMO’s first use of the LMD-649 sampler. Unlike their previous albums, samples really take the forefront here. It gives the album a quality rooted in both realism and sequenced synths. Together with the live drums and Haruomi Hosono’s bass playing, the album feels on one hand more tangible, more present—and on the other, transcendental and difficult to pinpoint.

Synths are still clearly a part of YMO’s bag of tricks, however, but the live instrumentation (or sampling thereof) grounds the album in reality. Many of the songs here contain constant reminders of the real world, whether it’s through bits of sampled chants, stomps, or factory sounds. The lyrics tend to be focused around earthly topics and making sense of what’s in front of us; whether it be an ugly slice of bread (“Pure Jam”), a moth or key in a forest (“Key”), or a foreign culture (“Seoul Music”), time and again the theme that YMO returns to is our perception of the world around us and how realities vary from person to person.

Then there’s the Brian Eno-like “Gradated Grey,” its swooping bits of compressed and phased air and effects interweaving throughout, with what sounds like a processed train whistle acting to guide the song along. It’s the calm before the storm of “Key” kicks in, inundating the listener with a manic beat and sequenced synths underlined by Takahashi’s lilted vocals.

We see the culmination of these themes in the lyrics here: “What do you see? / I see a moth / What kind? / It looks like my lover / Whatcha gonna do? / I wanna chase it.” The speaker here has difficulty identifying what precisely he’s seeing and experiencing (“Somebody please, what’s wrong with me?”). He quickly becomes frightened, unable to both disseminate his reality and escape it using the key he’s found. “I’ve got a feeling something’s happening / It gives me a thrill but it’s also very frightening.”

In a way, what YMO seems to be saying here, is that sometimes it’s best to accept something for what it is. Allowing yourself to assign a value or definition to something based on the perception of the world around you can lead to confusion and frustration. Sometimes it’s best to experience something by letting it ride over you and be what it is. This is music steeped in both the history of traditional music and at play with unconventional and innovative forms. Perhaps the statement here that YMO wants us to leave with is “let it be what it is.” It’s music, and it’s damn good.

Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4

“When I played it back I thought, ‘This is OK actually, maybe I should release it.’ All the technical aspects of the recording were just right, too, not a single fault. I didn’t have to change anything. It was perfect.”

-Manuel Göttsching

Anyone who has ever picked up an instrument and spent time improvising, either by themselves or with additional musicians, will know of the feeling when a particular session comes together in a way as to feel complete—the feeling that the creative motor fires on all cylinders, and the physical execution rises to meet it. It’s what all musicians strive for: the convergence of skill and taste.

And hallelujah for the times the recorder was running! In the case of Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, not only was it running and set up to capture the session, but in a premonition-like stroke of luck, Göttsching proceeded as if he were to officially record a studio session.

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and how many times has a musician—at the end of a particularly sparkling session—exclaimed, “oh if we had just recorded that!”? To Göttsching’s surprise, and our good fortune, he did!

Prior to and during the time of the recording, Göttsching was captivated by compositions by prominent minimalists, such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. His own work in Ashra (Ash Ra Temple) had grown progressively more electronic, incorporating loopers and synthesizers. He pushed Ashra, which by now was more a solo act than a group, from its early krautrock/progressive leanings into the forefront of electronic music.

Ever the guitarist, however, he began layering his guitar over the top of slowly morphing synths and gently-looped beats, and albums such as New Age of Earth, Blackouts, and Correlations would feature looped, treated guitar. This would continue to be his MO through much of the mid- to late-70s, leading up to the recording of E2-E4, when he began to experiment more with drum machines, sequencers, and synths.

The story, according to Göttsching, is that he wanted to record some music to listen to during a flight he was taking the next day. The result was a one take, hour-long piece whose foundation was a repeating synth riff over which he added some rolling electronic high hat and light, steady bass thumps. The centerpiece of the work—some lovely improvised guitar—enters the mix around the halfway point.

The album functions well as either background music or, arguably more so, when the listener is actively listening. It shines brightest through headphones and especially if said headphones are of higher quality and driven by decent audiophile equipment. That’s not to say you have to have higher-end equipment to enjoy the album. Its ability to grab the listener and take them in is mostly due to the structure of the piece itself, rather than the production quality.

Repetition is key here. It lends a stability to the piece that grounds it while at the same time allows it to transfix the listener. While it does on one hand somewhat point to the fact that this album was recorded spontaneously, it doesn’t come off as an unintended result due to the brevity of recording, or as the limitation of one man being at the helm. At many points, it keeps the piece from spiraling out from itself.

Take for example around the 47 minute mark. Göttsching’s guitar playing here has intensified, and begins to spread out. You can feel him pushing himself to let loose and fully explore how far he can take it within the confines of the song. It’s at this moment where his guitar comes as close to frenzied as it will within the piece. He feels like he’s getting ready to take off.

It is the foundation of the sequenced synths that keeps him in check. The interplay between this steady, structured base and the reaching, escaping guitar creates a beautifully strained and dichotomous pairing. It’s the climax of the album and it’s hard to resist bobbing your head along to it.

Göttsching has said that he didn’t immediately know what to do with this album after he had created it. He played it for Virgin managing director, Simon Draper, who liked it and referred Göttsching to Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson. He also liked it. Yet because of Göttsching’s reluctance to release it on Virgin to avoid it getting lost in a sea of mainstream releases now regularly coming through the label, it sat on the shelf until 1984.

He finally released it as E2-E4, a nod to both chess and R2-D2 (whose technical-sounding name he appreciated), on the smaller Inteam label. Its first run was 1,000 copies. The reception was modest, and it quickly faded into cult status.

It has maintained an influence, however, on electronic artists since its release. And while it’s certainly not widely known outside of the music industry and electronic music aficionados, it is undoubtedly considered a work of high achievement to those in the know. It is lightning in a bottle, or more precisely, on tape.

You can purchase E2-E4 at the official Ashra shop here.

Franco Nanni – Elicoide

Released in limited quantities in 1987, Elicoide is a beautiful example of minimalism in the tradition of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, or Daniel Lentz, but with synths. It was recorded live in a single take by Nanni, contrabassist Paolo Grandi, Leonardo Croatto, and Marcela Pérez Silva.

The album is built around evolving repeating notes from a series of synths: SCI’s Prophet 5 & Sixtrak, Yamaha DX7 & TX7, and Roland JX8P. Nanni’s intention was to create a trance-like effect from the repetition and slow, subtle shift in changes with the notes themselves. Thus, the pieces immerse the active listener in an environment where tonalities and beats change on a seemingly microscopic level, but still progress the compositions themselves.

Nanni eventually gave up playing music in the 1990s and concentrated on his studies, which included biology and sociobiology. Recently, Elicoide has been repressed on Affordable Inner Space in 2017. Copies of which have since sold out.

You can stream Elicoide on Bandcamp here.

Mariah – Utakata No Hibi

The long-running project of saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, this album represents in most listeners’ opinions (and mine) the pinnacle of his craftsmanship and the height of Mariah’s artistic endeavors. Each track here still feels fresh, as though it was recorded yesterday. This has much to do with the team of musicians Shimizu had surrounded himself with.

Originally begun as a hard rock/prog rock outfit, Mariah’s music focused on jazz interludes strung together with prototypical 1980s rock and pop. The music varied quite a bit from the harder rocking “Marginal Love” to the progressive leaning “Black Mariah.” Prior to Utakata, they had released three albums, Mariah, Yen Tricks, and Marginal Love. However, the advancement of originality on Utakata is unparalleled in the band’s history.

Shimizu went back to the drawing board after the lead singer, Satoshi Jimmy Murakami left the band. The approach became more organic––more natural. The band incorporated people they were already hanging out with at the Mariah offices. The artwork was produced by the manga artist and friend of Shimizu’s, Yla Okudaira, who worked out of Mariah’s office.

Another vital addition, according to Shimizu in a recent interview, was the addition of Aki Ikuta as co-producer. Until Utakata No Hibi, Ikuta mainly focused on management and “playing in and coordinating jazz sessions.”

He invited artist and wife of Mariah bassist Morio Watanabe, Seta Evanian, to write Armenian lyrics for various songs on the album. These were sung by her friend and visual artist, Julie Fowell, and as Shimizu recalled in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, “I remember the inspiration that flowed through me when we were collaborating, the feeling of an eternal breeze brushing your cheek.”

The music itself exemplifies this breeziness. It flows effortlessly and from a place of great passion. The incorporation of such seemingly disparate genres as jazz, Armenian, Asian, African, pop, disco, and new wave among others, so fluidly and with so few missteps is a testament to the openness of the recording sessions and the creative process.

“Hana Ga Saitara” bounces along, boosted by electronic burbles, yelps of saxophone, lively bass, and group vocals that at one point are spoken through what sounds like a megaphone. The effect is at once a feeling both recognizable yet completely unique.

The standout piece, “Shinzo No Tobira,” leans heavily on echoed drums, thumping bass, synth-pop keys, and gorgeous, off-kilter vocals by Fowell.

Utakata would sadly be the last record released by Mariah. The band went their separate ways shortly after its release. It’s hard to say where their music would have gone after this album––if it’s even possible to expand on such a sound as was already presented here. Shimizu, for his part, would go on to create numerous fantastic solo records, not in the least Kakashi.

However, regardless of the finality of Mariah, there is so much to mine here that after hundreds of listens, I’m still finding new phrases, new sounds, new images I hadn’t heard before. That is the beauty of this record. And that they accomplished this with such seemingly casualness only adds to its status as a hidden gem of the 1980s.

You can purchase the vinyl reissue at Palto Flats