CULT CLASSIC: DIES IRAE-FIRST.

Cult Classic: Dies Irae-First.

For many new bands, their main objective is to release an “album”  and they want to do this as quickly as possible. This will be 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 as 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 they 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, they shared the bill with bands that would become some of the biggest names in Krautrock history. Night after night, they held their own agains future Krautrock greats and critics embraced Dies Irae’s psychedelic-progressive sound. So did concert goes. It looked as if they had a bright future in front of them when they were about to release their debut album First in 1971. 

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 they founded the band 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, his music didn’t go well with everyone. His father and other adults in the village were angry that he and his friends were listening to American music. For Rainer Wahlmann 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 Wahlmann’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  he made a career out of music. Before that, 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,  his 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 Wahlmann 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 to reinvent music and many bands, including Amon Düül and Can pioneered improvisation. However, Dies Irae didn’t turn their back on the blues influence and  instead, decided to keep their options open.

As the sixties became the seventies, Dies Irae were a favourite of the live scene and 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 in 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 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 moment they had spent three years working towards and 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 Wahlmann’s lyrics were deemed too controversial to be played on West German radio stations. They banned the album which 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 and the record company was just part of its business portfolio. BASF didn’t seem to have the personnel to run what was a pan European record company. That was only part of the problem.

To make matters worse, they seemed to lack the expertise to promote First. That essentially killed the album. Especially since BASF seemed to lack a proper  distribution network that would ensure that 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 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 Wahlmann’s harmonica and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. That’s until he 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 and his 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, the psychedelic preacher proclaims: “theirs is the dawn of the new era,” on what’s a truly memorable start to First.

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,  classic rock and blues combines on Another Room. There’s a nod to Led Zeppelin as the rhythm section and guitar combine and set the scene for Rainer Wahlmann  as he sings: “ I moved away some days ago, away from my home town, into the bright city lights.” Then when the 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. Then with a minute to go, the vocal returns and it’s a mixture of power, passion and emotion. Then the baton to the rest of the band, as the song reaches a blistering, rocky crescendo.

As Rainer Wahlmann 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 a  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 Wahlmann 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 Wahlmann 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 and  a blistering, searing guitar and the thunderous rhythm provide the perfect backdrop to the swaggering vocal.

Tired was one of the songs on the album that attracted controversy. Initially the track has an understated introduction as the bass and guitar combine  with a bluesy harmonica before the drums drive the arrangement along. Soon, Rainer Wahlmann’s singing: “start living in your dreams, fly a dovetail joint, get on a trip” which was regarded as a controversial lyric in conservative West Germany in 1971. Then in the next verse, he adds to the controversy with an attitude filled vocal and sings: “get rid of those mindfuckers, fuck you too.” Later, it’s just the harmonica that plays, before the rest of Dies Irae return. Rainer Wahlmann and guitarist Harald H.G. Thoma play call and response, while the rhythm section power this bluesy jam along. 

Witches’ Meeting is a nine minute epic, has a jazz-tinged introduction. The bass walks the arrangement along while a blistering guitar and drums combine. The 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 continues to walk 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 hard rocking best. That’s the case from the get-go as bursts of blistering guitars join the driving rhythm section. The vocal fills left the gaps by the rest of the band. Then when it drops out, the arrangement takes on a bluesy hue and later, became jazz-tinged before bursts of guitar are panned right and left. Then at 2.38 the arrangement almost grinds to a hal before Dies Irae rebuild and a crystalline acoustic guitar adds a sunshine sound. Later, lysergic guitars give way to a choppy, hard rocking rocking arrangement before the band veer between blues and rock. Seamlessly, they switch between genres, and in the process, showcase their versatility and considerable skills.

Closing First is Run Off which starts offs a jam before Dies rie throw a curveball. The tape speed is increased producing a cartoonish sound. This they must have thought would leave a smile on the listeners’ faces until the next time.

Sadly, there wasn’t a next time for Dies Irae and First was their one and only album. They left the Pliz label shortly after the release of the album. This was disappointing and a case of what might have been for Dies Irae.

Rainer Wahlmann left Dies Irae in 1972, and this was a huge loss for the band. 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.  .

The problem was, Dies Irae signed to the wrong label. Pliz in 1971, seemed to a be somewhat dysfunctional record company and wasn’t equipped to promote new artists. Despite being part of a multinational company, Pliz wasn’t able to promote and distribute the album properly. Things might have been different if Dies Irae had signed to Ohr or Liberty Records? Maybe they would’ve promoted First more effectively? Sadly, that wasn’t the case. However, Dies Irae weren’t alone.

In the early seventies, countless German bands were in a similar situation to Dies Irae. Many were also releasing groundbreaking albums which also sunk without trace. Often, it was through no fault of the band. Many had  signed to the wrong label and often they 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 and they weren’t going to rub shoulders with the leading lights of German music. 

Given what happened, it’s no surprise that 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. 

It was almost inevitable that Rainer Wahlmann would make a comeback. When he formed his new band Green Wave he decided that this time around, music was going to be a hobby for him. He was making music on his terms and enjoying himself.

Nowadays, First is regarded as a cult classic that somewhat belatedly is starting to find the wider audience it deserved, and Dies Irea the nearly men of German music are receiving the recognition they so richly deserve. 

Cult Classic: Dies Irae-First.

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