CLUSTER’S CLASSIC YEARS 1971-1981.
Cluster’s Clasic Years 1971-1981.
The Cluster story began in the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin when Hans-Joachim Roedelius first met Dieter Moebius. Little did they know that they were about to embark upon a musical journey that would last five decades.
During that period, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius were part of three of the most important, influential, and innovative bands of the Kominische era. This includes Kluster, Cluster and Harmonia. Each of these groups have inspired several generations of musicians. That’s still the case today. However, the Cluster story, Hans-Joachim Roedelius told me, began in the late sixties.
It was in 1968, at the height of the psychedelic era, that Hans-Joachim Roedelius “cofounded music commune Human Being. I also co-founded Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin with conceptual artist Conrad Schnitzler. At that period, I was a member of the group Human Being, a forerunner of Kluster.” For Hans-Joachim Roedelius: “this was an exciting time, where there was a sense that anything was possible. It was like a revolution. We were happy to have found this place to work. All the freelance musicians in the city found their way to Zodiak Free Arts Lab. There were members of Can, Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra, Neu! at Zodiak. They were great times.” The Zodiak Free Arts Lab was also where Hans-Joachim Roedelius met someone who would play a huge part in his career, Dieter Moebius.
“About the end of 1969, Dieter Moebius visited The Zodiak Free Arts Lab. He wasn’t a member. No. He just visiting, and we got talking.” The two men found they had a lot in common, including the way they believed music should be made. It was almost inevitable that Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius would form a group.
“It was later, in 1970 that we founded Kluster.” Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius joined with Conrad Schnitzler to form Kluster. However, Kluster was no ordinary band.
Initially, Cluster played an eclectic instruments and utensils. “Everything was spontaneous. Improvisation was key.” Kluster’s music was described in The Crack In The Cosmic Egg magazine as “unlike anything heard before.” Hans-Joachim Roedelius admits: “that was what Kluster set out to do. Kluster was about musical activism.” Soon, the musical activists would record their debut album.
Kluster’s debut album came about in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Although band were based in West Berlin; “one night we were playing a concert in Dusseldorf. A priest just happened to be walking past, and heard the music. He liked our music, and came in to the hall. Once the concert was finished, he asked if we would like to record an album of new church music? The answer was yes!” So Kluster made the journey to the Rhenus-Studio in Gordor.
When Kluster arrived at the Rhenus-Studio, “we met Conny Plank and producer Oskar Gottlieb Blarr. We went into the studio and recorded an hour of music in one take. Religious text was added to this, and became the ‘new church music.’ The music became our first two albums Klopfzeichen and Zwei-Osterei.
Only 300 copies of both albums were pressed. Klopfzeichen was released in 1970, with Zwei-Osterei following in 1971. Critics realised the importance of Kluster’s music. It was described as quite extraordinary, bleak, stark, unnerving and full of electricity. Despite the reviews, the sales of Klopfzeichen and Zwei-Osterei were small. However, later, Kluster would be recognised as one of the most influential groups of the early seventies. This influential and innovative group would only release one further album.
This was Eruption, which was recorded by Kluster during 1971. It featured an hour of experimental music, which was recorded by Klaus Freudigmann. Eruption is quite different from Kluster’s first two albums. There is no religious text, just Kluster at their innovative best. For many, Eruption is Kluster’s finest hour. However, 1971 marked the end of an era for Kluster. One group became two.
Kluster To Cluster.
In the middle of 1971, Conrad Schnitzler left Kluster, and briefly, worked with another band, Eruption. This was the beginning of the end for Kluster.
After the original lineup of Kluster split-up, “Dieter Moebius and I anglicised the band’s name, and Kluster became Cluster.” Between 1971 and 2009, Cluster would release twelve studio albums and four live album. Cluster’s debut was released later in 1971.
When Cluster recorded their eponymous debut album, they were joined in the studio by another legend of German music, Conny Plank. He featured on Cluster, which marked a change in sound. Gone was the almost industrial, discordant sound, which was replaced by an electronic sound. “Dieter and I played all the instruments and Conny added all sorts of effects. For us this was the start of a new era.”
Cluster was released later in 1971 on Phillips. “This was Cluster’s major label debut. It found Cluster at a crossroads.” They were ready to turn their back on the avant-garde, almost discordant and industrial sound of Kluster, and begin the shift towards the ambient and rock-tinged sound of the late seventies. That was the future.
Before that, Cluster began work on their eponymous debut album. In the studio, Cluster set about honing and sculpting a trio of soundscapes. Hans-Joachim Roedelius remembers: Cluster which had very little melody, is a series of improvised and atmospheric soundscapes.” They’re best described as futuristic, moody, dramatic and truly captivating. Heavy rhythms, beeps, squeak and drones drenched in effects assail the listener. It’s as if Cluster have been inspired by avant-garde, free jazz, early electronica, industrial, free jazz and even rock. This fusion of influences became Cluster.
Once Cluster was completed, the album was released on Philips. Little did anyone, even Cluster themselves, realise the effect album bearing the serial number Philips 6305074 would have. Nowadays, Cluster is regarded as an innovative classic, and in a sense, this was the start of Cluster’s career in earnest.
“For the followup to Cluster, Conny Plank was no longer a member of Cluster. We were now a duo, consisting of Dieter and I. Conny had other projects he wanted to concentrate on.” With three becoming two, the two remaining members took a different approach to recording.
Cluster had added to their impressive arsenal of equipment. As Conny Plank watched on, two organs, analog synths, a Hawaiian guitar, a bass and an electronically treated cello were brought into the studio. Cluster weren’t finished yet. The two members of Cluster started setting up array of effects. This included audio-generators which usually, was found in an electrician’s toolbox. They became part of Cluster’s alternative orchestra. With everything setup, Cluster got to work.
“To some extent, it was trial and error. We tried different things. Some worked, others didn’t,” Hans Hans-Joachim Roedelius explains. The end result, Cluster II “saw a further shift towards a more electronic sound.”
The music veered between futuristic and dramatic to hypnotic, dreamy, lysergic and otherworldly. Sometimes the music becomes pastoral; other times understated and occasionally, explodes into life. However, for much of the time, Cluster II is melodic and mesmeric. Again, Cluster had produced an album that was way ahead of its time.
When Cluster II was released, it was on Germany premier label when it came to ambitious and innovative music, Brain. Cluster II was assigned the serial number Brain 1006, and when in was released in 1972, it was well on its way to becoming a groundbreaking genre classic.
Ironically, many German critics and record buyers overlooked groups like Cluster. Instead, they were more interested in the music coming out of America and Britain. Incredibly, they never realised that some of the most innovative music was being made in their own backyard. This includes that made by musical chameleons, Cluster whose music would continue to evolve.
Zuckerzeit, Cluster’s third album, was released in 1974, and was co-produced by Michael Rother of Neu! “Michael first met Dieter and I in 1971. By 1973, Michael was on a break from Neu! We decided to head into the countryside to Forst, to build our own recording studio.” This could’ve been fraught with problems? “No. We knew what we were doing and trying to achieve. All of us had experience in studios, so knew what was required.” The result was a studio “where Michael, Dieter and I recorded the two Harmonia albums, Musik Von Harmonia and Deluxe.” However, before that, Zuckerzeit was released.
On the release of Zuckerzeit, in 1974 Michael Rother’s influence is noticeable. He placed more emphasis on melody, rhythm and the motorik beat.” Hans-Joachim Roedelius explains that previously, Cluster didn’t place the same importance on melody or structure. Michael introduced structure and discipline.” The result was a very different album.
That’s apparent from the opening bars of Hollywood. A crisp Motorik beat provides the backdrop for Cluster’s synths. They create music that’s variously melodic, ethereal, evocative, haunting and cinematic. Especially on tracks like Hollywood, Rosa, Fotschi Tong and Marzipan. Then on Rote Riki, the music becomes futuristic, with the man machine adding sci-fi sounds that sound as if they’re from a distant planet. Meanwhile, Caramel would influence future generations of dance music producers. Although Caramba has futuristic sound, it’s melodic and contemporary. It sounds as if it belongs on the dance-floors of Berlin’s clubs. This is incredible, given Zuckerzeit was released later in 1972.
Cluster had released two albums on Brain during 1972. Both would become future genre classics, and both would show a different side to Cluster. Zuckerzeit with its mixture of electronic pop, art rock and avant-garde, was an album way ahead of its time. It’s a truly innovative and timeless album, where Cluster continue to reinvent themselves. The decision to bring Michael Rother onboard as producer was a masterstroke; and also resulted in the birth of a new band, Harmonia who released four albums before Cluster returned in 1976.
After “Harmonia ran its course, we returned to Cluster. We had never stopped being Cluster. We played live, but didn’t release a new album until Sowiesoso, in 1976, which we recorded in just two days.”
Despite being recorded in just two days, Sowiesoso found Cluster at their creative zenith. They had recorded an album of understated, beautiful, poignant and melancholy melodies, including Umleitung, Zum Wohl and Es War Einma. The arrangements are often minimalist, but always, cinematic. Sometimes, the music is evocative and atmospheric. Occasionally, there’s an air of mystery. Especially, Halwa, with its cinematic sound. Just like the rest of Sowiesoso, the music paints pictures. That was the case in 1976, and is the case in 2016.
When Sowiesoso was released in 1976, it was on Günter Körber’s Sky Records. It had been formed in 1975, and by 1976, was already regarded as a label that released ambitious, influential and innovative music. This described Cluster’s first album in four years. However, Sowiesoso was a very different album to Zuckerzeit.
That was no surprise to those familiar with Cluster’s music. They were like musical chameleons, constantly reinventing their music. The musical chameleons were about to enter a three year period where Cluster could do no wrong.
Enter Brian Eno.
In June 1977, the two members of Cluster were joined by three old friends. The first was Holger Czukay of Can. “Dieter and I knew Holger from way back, back to Zodiak Free Arts Lab. We hung around with members of Can. Back then, there was a great sense of community. Everyone helped and influenced each other. We even went on to tour together.” Another of the guest artists on Cluster’s 1977 album first met Dieter and Hans at a Cluster concert.
That was Brian Eno: “who Cluster jammed with in 1974. Brian joined us on stage, and we spent the second half of the concert jamming. That was how we first met Brian. Then in 1977, he joined as for the recording of Cluster and Eno. We learnt a lot from Brian. Similarly, I like to think we influenced him. That was the case when we recorded After The Heat.” Before that, Cluster and Eno was recorded.
Cluster and Eno.
The four great innovators got to work. They spent part of June 1977 recording enough for two albums. Conny Plank laid down bass lines, while Dieter and Hans-Joachim Roedelius played synths and keyboards. So did Brian Eno who added bass and vocals. Once the recording session was complete, the first collaboration between Cluster and Brian Eno was released later in 1977.
When Cluster and Eno was released later in 1977, the album was a meeting of minds. Elements of both Cluster and Brian Eno’s music melted into one. Cluster supplied elements of avant-garde, while Brian Eno’s supplied the ambient influence. When this was combined with drone and world music, the result was another classic album.
Widespread critical acclaim accompanied the release of Cluster and Eno. It was hailed a groundbreaking album, one that was way ahead of its time. Cluster and Eno is an album that Hans-Joachim Roedelius: “is proud of.” He remembers the recording sessions fondly, and sees both Cluster and Eno, and its followup After The Heat, as an equally “influential album.”
After The Heat.
Just a year after the release of Cluster and Eno, the second collaboration between Cluster and Brian Eno was released. It too, was released to critical acclaim. This fusion of ambient, art rock, avant-garde, experimental and Krautrock were combined by Cluster and Brian Eno. Again, both Cluster and Brian Eno were influencing each other.
“This was not one way. We both influenced each other. On After The Heat, I believe we influenced Brian’s production style. If you listen to David Bowie’s Low and Lodger albums which Brian Eno produced, Cluster and Harmonia’s influence can be heard. So while Brian influenced Cluster, we certainly influenced him.” After two albums with Brian Eno, Cluster’s next album saw them return to a duo.
Following two albums with Brian Eno, Cluster returned to the studio in 1979. This time, Cluster were joined by Peter Baumann of Tangerine Dream. He would produce Grosses Wasser, Cluster’s seventh album.
It was an album where Cluster drew inspiration from ambient, art rock and avant-garde to electronica and free jazz. The result was music that’s ambitious, challenging and experimental. Other times, the music becomes ethereal, elegiac, melancholy and cinematic. Sometimes, though, Cluster throw a curveball like on Breitengrad 20, and a track changes direction. This adds to avant-garde sound of Grosses Wasser.
When Cluster released Grosses Wasser later in 1979, it proved to be Cluster’s most avant-garde album. “This wasn’t a conscious decision. Instead, it was just a case of evolution. That was the way that the Cluster worked. It was the same live.” That became apparent on Cluster’s first live album.
Live In Vienna.
Despite releasing seven studio albums, Cluster had never released a live album. That changed when Cluster took to the stage at the Wiener Festwochen Alternativ, on June 12th, 1980. It was the only time that Cluster took to the stage with Joshi Farnbauer. The result was one of Cluster’s most experimental albums.
Sometimes, the music veered towards discordant, and was reminiscent of early performances by Kluster. Hans-Joachim Roedelius remembers: “a song was just the starting point. We never knew what direction it would take. It was improvisation at its purest. Partly, it was because we couldn’t replicate our music live.” That was the case on, Live In Vienna, which featured Cluster at their most ambitious and inventive. However, just like Harmonia four years earlier, the end was nigh for Cluster.
Cluster recorded their ninth album Curiosum in 1981. Recording took place at Hamet Hof, in Vienna, which was now Hans-Joachim Roedelius adopted home.
At Hamet Hof, Cluster recorded seven tracks. Some were relatively short by Cluster standards. Given the title, the seven tracks on Curiosum were somewhat unorthodox. However, they were unusually melodic. It was a fitting way to end chapter one of the Cluster story.
Just like Harmonia, “Cluster had run its course. We decided to concentrate on other projects. There was no fall-out, Cluster just came to a natural end. After eight studio albums and a live album, Cluster was over. Or was it?
That wasn’t the case and Cluster released twelve studio albums and four live albums between 1971 and 2009. However, Cluster’s classic years were between 1971 and 1981, when they released the best music of their career. There’s a reason for this. Cluster weren’t afraid to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. Musically, Cluster were willing to go, where others musicians feared to tread, This paid off, and Cluster consistently released music that was truly innovative and inventive. Sadly, between 1971 and 1981 Cluster’s groundbreaking and genre-melting music was way ahead off its time and failed to find the audience it deserved.
Somewhat belatedly, Cluster are being recognised for being musical pioneers, who released ambitious, groundbreaking and timeless music. It has gone on to influence several generation of musicians. They cite Cluster as one of the bands who influence and inspired them. That will continue to the case as the music Cluster made was truly timeless and groundbreaking.
Cluster’s Clasic Years 1971-1981.
- Posted in: Ambient ♦ Avant Garde ♦ Berlin School ♦ Experimental ♦ Krautrock
- Tagged: After The Heat, Cluster, Cluster '71, Cluster and Eno, Cluster II, Conny Plank, Deluxe, Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Rodelius, Harmonia, Kluster, Michael Rother, Musik Von Harmonia, Sowiesoso, Tracks and Traces, Zwei-Osterei