For many new bands, their main objective is to release a “record.” They want to do this as quickly as possible. For them, it’s a sign that they’ve “arrived” and have one foot on the musical ladder. Sadly, for some bands, that’s as far as it goes. The album fails to sell and that’s the last that’s heard of them. Sadly, they’re in the majority. Musical history is littered with bands that “could’ve been contenders.”
What many people fail to realise, is that the difference between success and failure is often, akin to a toss of coin. Many bands could’ve gone on to have a glittering career, or influence future generations of musicians. That was the case with Dies Irae, one of the earliest bands of the Krautrock era.
Dies Irae could’ve and should’ve reached far greater heights. They were founded in 1968, and by the time Dies Irae released their debut album First in 1971, the band looked like they were destined for greatness.
By then, Dies Irae were a popular band on the live circuit. Regularly, Dies Irae shared the bill with bands that would become some of the biggest names in Krautrock history. Night after night, Dies Irae held their own future Krautrock greats. Critics embraced Dies Irae’s psychedelic-progressive sound. So did concert goes. So when Dies Irae announced they were about to release their debut album First in 1971, it looked like they were about to be promoted to the Bundeslegia.
When First was released in 1971, there was a problem. The lyrical content of First was controversial. So much so, that the majority of West German radio stations promptly banned the album. With little or no radio play, First failed to find the audience it deserved. For the members of Dies Irae, this was a huge disappointment. This hadn’t been part of their hopes and dreams when Dies Irae as founded in 1968.
That’s when Rainer Wahlmann, Andreas F. Cornelius, Harald H.G. Thoma and Robert J. Schiff founded Dies Irae. However, Rainer Wahlmann can trace roots of the band can be traced back to the late-fifties and early sixties.
That’s when Rainer Wahlmann first remembers listening to the music of Elvis Pressley, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Bill Haley. This was to all intents and purposes his musical education. However, Rainer’s music didn’t go well with everyone. His father and other adults in the village were angry that Rainer and his friends were listening to American music. For Rainer, this made the music all the more appealing.
“I was honestly impressed. This kind of weird music really disturbed the adult world so much, and was able to make them really angry!” This resulted in Rainer’s father deciding to teach his son a musical lesson. “My father played the guitar and he always tried to teach me the songs he used to sing. I hated those songs and as a result I never really learned to play the guitar.” Despite this Rainer go not to make a career out of music. Before then, his musical tastes began to change.
“Later, about 1963/64, I started to listen to early British beat bands like The Searchers, The Kinks, The Animals and The Who.” By then, British groups were popular in America and Europe. However, Rainer’s father wasn’t a fan. “My first records were of the Rolling Stones and my record player got thrown out the window by my father.” For Rainer this was the last straw.
“I decided to fight with music for freedom of thought and against intolerance. With some schoolmates we began practicing. I couldn’t play anything, but I thought I had something to say. I pretended to be the singer.” Soon, what started out as a protest and act of defiance, inadvertently launched Rainer’s musical career.
By 1968, a new wave of bands were being formed across West Germany. Many were inspired by psychedelia, which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. However, Dies Irae would be more like Amon Düül and Guru Guru, with a darker sound.
The four men behind Dies Irae’s darker sound were harmonica player and vocalist Rainer Wahlmann, drummer Andreas F. Cornelius, bassist Robert J. Schiff and guitarist Harald H.G. Thoma. They cofounded Dies Irae in 1968, began working on honing their sound.
Over the next weeks and months, Dies Irae gradually honed and refined their sound. It became much more closely aligned with Amon Düül and Guru Guru. Dies Irae’s music had a similar darkness. However, unlike many bands who were pioneers of the nascent Krautrock scene, Dies Irae didn’t reject American musical influences.
As the Krautrock era began in 1969, many groups turned their back on American music. Especially the influence blues had had on music. That for many Krautrock pioneers was the music of the past. They were determined reinvent music. Many bands, including Amon Düül and Can pioneered improvisation. However, Dies Irae didn’t turn their back on the blues influence. Instead, the kept their options open.
As the sixties became the seventies, Dies Irae were a favourite of the live scene. They shared concert and festival bills with future Krautrock favourites. Audiences were won over by Dies Irae’s crowd pleasing fusion of psychedelia, progressive rock, blues and rock. Their music seemed to appeal to a wider audience than some bands. This augured well for Dies Irae who were preparing to release their debut album First.
For their debut album, nine tracks were penned. Seven were written by Rainer Wahlmann and the other three members of Dies Irae. Salve Oimel and Run Off were credited to the four members of Dies Irae. These tracks would become First, which was recorded in Hamburg, with a legend of German music.
Recording of what what became First took place at the Star Studio Hamburg. The engineer was none other than Conny Plank. He had already worked with some of the most innovative groups of the Krautrock era. By the time the Krautrock era drew to a close in 1977, Conny Plank would’ve played a leading role in recording and producing everyone from Kraftwerk and Cluster, to Guru Guru, Neu!, Lava, Kollectiv, Harmonia and Grobschnitt. The man that Michael Rother would later call “the genius,” would’ve more than played his role in the Krautrock era. However, for the recording of First, Conny left the production to Jürgen Schmeisser.
He was an experienced producer, who initially, ran the Pliz label, which was a subsidiary of the BASF corporation. Already, Jürgen Schmeisser had produced Ardo Dombec, Blackwater Park, McChurch Soundroom and Virus for the Pilz label. Now he was set to work with Dies Irae.
Dies Irae arrived at Star Studio Hamburg on the 3rd of June 1971. Harmonica player and vocalist Rainer Wahlmann watched as the rhythm section of drummer Andreas F. Cornelius and bassist Robert J. Schiff setup. They were joined by guitarist Harald H.G. Thoma. Once the equipment was setup, the members of Dies Irae realised that now was the movement they had spent three years working towards. The next two days could make or break their career.
After two days recording the nine tracks, First was completed and now, their debut album would be released on the Pliz label. They were about to follow in the footsteps of Ardo Dombec, Blackwater Park, McChurch Soundroom and Virus.
Later in 1971, First was released on the Pliz label. While the album was well received by critics, there was a problem. Rainer’s lyrics were deemed too controversial to be played on West German radio stations. They banned the album. This was a huge blow for the members of Dies Irae.
Without radio play, people how were people going to hear about First? To make matters worse, Pliz, a subsidiary of BASF wasn’t like other record labels.
Part of the problem was, by 1971, BASF was a vast conglomerate. A record company was just part of its business portfolio. However, BASF didn’t seem to have the personnel to run what was a pan European record company.
They seemed to lack the expertise to promote First. That essentially killed the album. BASF seemed to lack a proper distribution network that ensure the album found its way into shops. That was the last straw.
Just like other albums released by BASF’s record label, First failed commercially. Albums were lucky to sell even a couple of thousand copies. That’s if they were really lucky. It seemed Dies Irae had signed to the wrong label. Things could’ve and should’ve been very different. After all, First was album that deserved to reach a much wider audience.
Lucifer literally bursts into life, opening First. There’s a blues-rock sound as Rainer’s harmonica and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. That’s until Rainer dawns the role of psychedelic preacher. With chiming guitars for company, his languid, lysergic vocal begins to delivers his message. Then the blues rock arrangement explodes, and Dies Irae cut loose. Rainer’s vocal becomes an impassioned roar, that surely, influenced the punk generation? Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the pounding heartbeat, and sometimes, produce a proto-punk sound. Harald H.G. Thoma’s blistering, searing guitar plays a starring role. When it’s panned, it adds to the trippy, freakbeat sound. With less than a minute to go, Rainer revives the role of psychedelic preacher, and proclaims: “theirs is the dawn of the new era,” on what’s one of the most memorable starts to any Krautrock album.
Another Room is best described as a spoken word, lysergic sketch lasting just thirty seconds. It sounds as if one of Dies Irae has taken a Trip, as he giggles uncontrollably.
Straight away, Another Room combines classic rock and blues. There’s a nod to Led Zeppelin as the rhythm section and guitar combine. They set the scene for Rainer’s as he sings: “ I moved away some days ago, away from my home town, into the bright city lights.” Then when Rainer’s vocal drops out, the rest of the band fuse elements of psychedelia and progressive rock. By then, it’s apparent just how tight and talented a group Dies Irae are. As they showcase their considerable skills, they seem to relish this opportunity. Then with a minute to go, Rainer’s vocal returns. It’s a mixture of power, passion and emotion. He passes the baton to the rest of the band, as the song reaches a blistering, rocky crescendo.
As Rainer advises “tune in,” the arrangement to Trip heads in the direction of avant-garde, psychedelia and free jazz. Dies Irae jam for just over a minute, before the arrangement almost dissipates. All that’s left is Rainer’s whispery vocal, which is accompanied by what’s an eerie, cinematic and lysergic backdrop. A guitar weeps, a bass bounds in the distance and drums are caressed as what’s easily the most psychedelic track on First unfolds. Rainer seems to pickup where the Lizard King left off. As a guitar shimmers across the arrangement, the rhythm section play subtly. Later, avant-garde, psychedelia and free jazz combine on this magical, mesmeric and lysergic Trip.
Harmagedon Dragonlove finds Dies Irae at their hard rocking best. They sound like one of the unholy trinity of rock, as the rhythm section drive the arrangement relentlessly along. Then there’s a brief, dreamy burst of what sounds like mid-seventies Pink Floyd. Then Dies Irae are off and running. Rainer sounds every inch the strutting frontman of a rock ’n’ roll band. Behind him, the rest of Dies Irae are at their hard rocking best. That’s apart from the brief bursts of dreamy, lysergic music, and a diversion via progressive rock. Mostly, though Dies Irae are kicking loose. A blistering, searing guitar and the thunderous rhythm provide the perfect backdrop to Rainer’s swaggering vocal.
Tired was one of the songs that attracted controversy. It has an understated introduction. Just the bass and guitar combine with Rainer’s bluesy harmonica, before the drums drive the arrangement along. Soon, Rainer’s singing: “start living in your dreams, fly a dovetail joint, get on a trip.” This was a controversial lyric. Especially in conservative West Germany in 1971. Then in the next verse, Rainer adds to the controversy with an attitude filled vocal. He sings: “get rid of those mindfuc-ers, fu-k you too.” Later, it’s just the harmonica that plays, before the rest of Dies Irae return. Rainer and guitarist Harald H.G. Thoma play call and response, while the rhythm section power this bluesy jam along.
Witches’ Meeting, a nine minute epic, has a jazz-tinged introduction. The bass walks the arrangement along, while blistering guitar and drums combine. Rainer’s vocal has a jazz influence, before it drops out. Then Dies Irae jam, combining jazz with elements of blues, classic rock and progressive rock. At 2.10 the song literally grinds to a halt, before the bass walks the arrangement along. Later, washes of shimmering, effects laden psychedelic guitar join rumbling drums as Dies Irae jam and improvise. Again, this gives them the opportunity to show that they belonged in the musical Bundeslegia. It’s another stunning genre-melting jam.
Red Lebanese is another of the songs that attracted controversy in 1971. With its references to smoking hash, this was just another reason for the authorities to ban the album from being played on radio. The decision of West Germany’s moral guardians, meant that a wider audience were denied the opportunity of hearing First on radio stations.
That was a great shame, as Red Lebanese finds Dies Irae at their very hard rocking best. That’s the case from the get-go. Bursts of blistering guitars join the driving the rhythm section. Rainer’s vocal fills left the gaps by the rest of the band. Then when his vocal drops out, the arrangement takes on a bluesy hue. Later, Dies Irae take a diversion via jazz. This comes courtesy of the walking bass. Bursts of guitar are panned right and left. Then at 2.38 the arrangement almost grinds to a halt. As, Dies Irae rebuild, a crystalline acoustic guitar plays, adding a sunshine sound. Later, lysergic guitars give way to a choppy, hard rocking rocking arrangement, before Rainer and the band veer between blues and rock. Seamlessly, they switch between genres, and in the process, showcase their versatility and considerable skills.
Run Off closes First. It starts offs a jam, before the tape speed is increased. This results in a cartoonish sound, which Dies Irae must have thought would leave a smile on the listeners’ faces…until the next time.
Sadly, there wasn’t a next time. First was Dies Irae’s first and last album. They never released another album for Pliz, or indeed any other label during the Krautrock era.
Rainer Wahlmann left Dies Irae in 1972. He wasn’t just the frontman and harmonica player, he was Dies Irae’s lyricist. Without him, Dies Irae weren’t the same band. That’s despite Andreas F. Cornelius, Harald H.G. Thoma and Robert J. Schiff being hugely talented musicians. However, without their frontman and lyricist, it was just about the end of the road for Dies Irae.
They continued until 1973, when eventually, they called time on their five year career. It was yet another case of what if?
Dies Irae are another band from the Krautrock era who should’ve enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. The band featured four hugely talented musicians, who seamlessly, could switch between genres.
Although referred to as a band who combined psychedelia and progressive rock, there’s much more to Dies Irae’s music than that. They combine elements of avant garde, blues, classic rock, experimental, free jazz and jazz on First. Sometimes, though, when Dies Irae combine blues and rock, they sound not unlike Led Zeppelin. Sadly, Dies Irae didn’t enjoy the same success. However, what would’ve happened if Dies Irae had been signed to another label?
The problem was, Dies Irae signed to the wrong label. Pliz in 1971, seemed to a be somewhat dysfunctional record company. It wasn’t equipped to promote new artists. If they had been, then First would’ve found a much wider audience. Dies Irae it seemed, had signed to the wrong label.
Who knows what might have happened if Dies Irae had signed to Ohr, Brain or even Liberty? Maybe these labels would’ve promoted Dies Rae more effectively? Sadly, that wasn’t the case. However, Dies Irae weren’t alone.
Far from it. In the early seventies, countless bands were in a similar music. Many were releasing groundbreaking music. Despite that, many of these albums sunk without trace. Often, it was through no fault of the band. Many had the misfortune to sign to the wrong label. Some of these labels lacked the knowledge, nous or funds to promote an album. As a result, albums that could’ve played an important part in German musical history were lost for a generation.
It was no surprise that after the failure of First, and the demise of Dies Irae that Rainer Wahlmann was bitter about the failure of First. He had been part of a group that should’ve enjoyed a long and successful career. Instead, they only released one album, which West Germany’s moral guardians banned from the radio. For Rainer Wahlmann and the rest of Dies Irae the dream was over. They weren’t going to rub shoulders with the leading lights of German music.
Instead, Rainer Wahlmann turned his back on music, and returned to the ‘real world.’ With the dream over, he found a steady job and settled down. While it wasn’t the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle he had dreamed of, he enjoyed the security the 9-5 slog brings. However, like many musicians he still loved music and performing. It was in his blood.
Unlike many musicians, Rainer Wahlmann wasn’t willing to turn his back on security for another taste of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. He had been there. Instead, he was going to make music on his terms. This time round, music was going to be a hobby for Rainer Wahlmann, and his new group Green Wave. The second chapter in the Rainer Wahlmann story was about to begin.