Cluster – Curiosum

Yes, 1981…
Much of Cluster’s lauded material (if not all) stems from the 70s so why choose Curiosum? The 70s was the glory era for Krautrock after all in which Can moved through Malcolm, into Suzuki and then on to almost disco-pop grooves and a Top Of The Pops appearance… Kraftwerk went from being a band, a duo and then a foursome that were the Beatles of electro-pop… Faust came along making sure to wow and puzzle everyone as they did so while proving that you can appeal to both dope-smokers and glue-sniffers alike and many other defining moments too.
So what of Cluster’s career trajectory? And why choose something from 1981, outside of the Golden Age?

Let check Cluster’s 70s output first…

Continuing in a roughly similar vein of noise terrorism as Kluster (with Conrad Schnitzler as third member), the first 2 Cluster albums (Cluster 71 & Cluster II) were definitely interesting, groundbreaking even, if abrasive and probably purposefully so. Then, after working with Michael Rother as Harmonia, a new facet emerged. Minimal, rotating, trance-inducing loops and proto-electro bubbled and gurgled throughout the whole of Cluster’s Zuckerzeit and Soweisoso. A career defining sound which caught the ear of someone called Brian. The most recognised non-musician in Britain had been usurped on his own territory (that of an optimistic post-war future where machines would take the brunt of human burden) so, naturally, not being one to be half-arsed when on to a good thing, he got involved. With both Cluster AND Harmonia! Albums were released, material stored for a later date and a new strain of psychedelic-electro-ambient was born.

Thank you Brian.

Then, 1979 and Grosses Wasser… An oddball curveball.
The album opens predicting the icy-cold synth waves of the 80s (Avanti) then comes on like a fatal stabbing at a disco (Protese) and much more before you flip the vinyl and check into the monolithic title track for a 20 minute brain-journey (can you tell I nearly picked Grosses Wasser to review?).
But as much as I love Grosses Wasser, it’s a bit non-linear for what I’m used to from Cluster and, amazing as it is, it presents more of an impressive collage of ideas than an overall unifying sound.

Curiosum is the album that got me into Cluster; stumbled upon by accident after shoving a well known brand of mp3 player on a random setting when out foraging for fungi. It’s warmth, otherworldliness and allusion to the word “curious” perfectly matched my pursuit in the shadows of leaves and spots of sunlight on that autumn day. Fluffy mossy growths, strangely extruded Helvella Crispa mushrooms and a babbling river nearby making for an odd yet harmonious marriage of natural and synthetic rhythms that pervaded all of my senses.

That moment when it all clicked together was a taste of absolute fucking heaven that I will take to the grave. For me, it gave a gift of peace, simplicity and an overwhelming sense of the thing that defines us all as being human… Curiosity.

The tracks from Curiosum:

Oh Odessa
The sound of steam powered robots at work whilst being interrupted by Avon calling on a chiming doorbell. All very minimal and burble-y but somehow very different to the 70s output with its insistence on forcing that inane, descending doorbell mantra. They have somehow managed to grip onto a refrain so cheap and shallow, only to hammer it home until its the cosiest sound you’ve known since hearing a baby snore and from the off, it’s a clear indicator that repetition will be key in getting some of these ideas understood.

The perfect title for this track. It fluffily bumps along with the sound of more android machinery whirring away but without any real direction. In a good way, I hasten to add… An experiment into the capabilities of the instrumentation at hand, more so than how conventional musical notation can affect, and this makes the lack of direction not so much of an aimless pursuit; it’s a push-me-pull-you indecisiveness.
For? Against? For?
Pro? Anti? Pro?
Clever bastards!

Seltsame Gegand
If Proantipro seemed like an exercise in mostly “wibble” and “bomp” then Seltsame Gegand goes out further on a
limb. As music this would ask a lot of the casual listener… “you call that music?!” I can hear their cries now. But put it as a soundtrack to the computer animations of the day (Wendy Carlos’ Tron ST was similarly obtuse in places) or imagine that kind of scenario (slow motion CGI squash balls in a rubber room perhaps?) and all of a sudden it’s not only accessible but totally of its time and, I hate using this word but, zeitgeist, for both 1981 and the current day.

Helle Melange
A moment as elegant and clear as an ice cold pool comes into view next. This is Cluster at their most European. Not in a pre-rave way but more the sound of being out in the Eastern snow-licked regions. Deceptively simple but totally atmospheric, I’m instantly transported to places with Viennese architecture, wearing my winter coat (I since discover that the album was recorded in Vienna). Chess and vodka to keep thee warm in the long dark cold nights. It’s definitely night-time anyway.

Tristan In Der Bar
I didn’t study the German language but I hope that I’m smart enough to translate the title correctly as Tristan In The Bar. Because that’s what it sounds like… a deliciously rat-arsed happy drunk bouncing off people and furniture like a marshmallow pinball. All cross eyed smiles and pokey out teeth.
Synthesisers swell in and out of view (and tune) sometimes tripping over their own feet making whole thing halt for a moment with only a broken toy waltz beat underpinning the not-quite-right-ness of the whole setting. It encapsulates the wooziness of booziness, if I’m allowed say such a thing and, if you listen closely, you can detect the sound of those yeasty bubbles shimmering upwards to fogify the brain.

This, I’m sure, was the first track to grab me in the woods that day. It might still be my favourite on the album.

Following in a similar vein to Tristan, Charlic has the same waltz feel and tempo but is more of a gentle affair. Again, I’m transported back to the woods that day watching autumn leaves spin down from the trees like dying ballerinas, sometimes caught on a strand of an invisible spiders web and magically pirouetting in the air. It just as easily brings to mind the rotating blades of a wind farm with the ever present “whow whow” cutting the air in the background and providing the only semblance of a beat. Add a simple glassy keyboard line tickling like tiny footsteps across the whole vision and that’s all you need.

Warm and icy, if there can be such a thing, Ufer would be the ideal accompaniment to a dip into a hot spring pool in the cold volcanic regions of Iceland. Its treeless, strangely barren and lunar landscape, complete with steaming sulphur pools, complementing the audio-vista like a hand in glove.

If only we could guarantee a UFO landing to coincide with the setting, then we would have the whole experience.

This, the longest, most sprawling track stands out among the vignettes that make up the rest of Curiosum and is another classily accomplished 8 minute sonic soundscape, the thing that Cluster invented with Conrad Schnitzler back in the late 60s as Kluster, but with more thought and control over the machines delivering the now toned down chaos.

This album, like most other Cluster albums, is a complete piece. A full on big blanket to lie under and get enveloped within. No sharp angular bits. Nothing so avant-garde as to jar or awaken from slumber. Perfectly suited to an all encompassing vision – microscopic AND telescopic, there’s always something universal about Cluster’s music.

Look at those names too: Roedelius… Moebius…

These boys were destined for each other and that must be because the universe conspired to bring them together, curious as to what these strangely named, thoughtful entities would create.

Curiosity, there’s that word, that mind-set again…

We should congratulate Cluster for this, their most precious ingredient, poured in to the fibre of every second on any Cluster album you care to mention.
But Curiosum is the one that keeps calling me back…

Review by Ian Hinton-Smith
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One Response to Cluster – Curiosum

  1. Michael Meade says:

    Totally agree. Oh Odessa totally roped me in as some blood-spattered killer clown soundtrack. Even after already being familiar with the Cluster & Eno album, that first song on Curiosum just opened up the gates for what I could expect from these two. It’s still my favorite of theirs after Sowiesoso, just for it’s sheer catchiness and experimentation and simplicity, albeit deceptive.

    This is the album that I think most electronic musicians are afraid to make, even (or maybe especially) now. They seem to have created their own musical language with this one that still resonates after so many listens. A vastly under-rated gem of an album.

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