Cluster – Zuckerzeit

1974. The year I was born. I can’t believe it, when I cast my eye back across the decades from where I stand now in 2012, that music as futuristic and groundbreaking as this was being made while I was busy filling nappies and drooling onto my own face and chin.
And maybe Cluster couldn’t believe it at the time either…
Because, if you follow the Kluster/Cluster trail from the start you have 2 Kluster albums of strange sonic territories. Proto-industrial headache music driven mostly by original member and noise enthusiast Conrad Schnitzler. Then you have 2 post-Schnitzler Cluster albums of, well, pretty similar territory really. Mis-treated pianos and all sorts of other instruments get mangled together into a kind of argument soup. Queasy-listening for sure.
Confession time though , I still have much dabbling to do in Kluster and early Cluster territory, and I could probably sharpen up my description of what they were doing back then.
But there’s plenty of time yet…
I’ve done more research and MUCH more listening from Zuckerzeit onwards though and can say that my understanding is this…
The collaboration between Cluster and Michael Rother as Harmonia lit the touch paper for the true genius-dynamite that lay within Moebius and Roedelius. Just check the difference between Cluster II and Zuckerzeit because what lies in between the two is Musik Von Harmonia.
Michael Rother, when he arrived at Forst to begin the project, brought with him a love of rhythmical repetition and fluidity that locked in like a Chinese puzzle with the sonic efforts of the Cluster cohorts giving it the solid foundation that it needed (in my opinion anyway).
Musik Von Harmonia is still astoundingly ahead of its time and I hear bits of it every now and then as the background music for TV programmes centred around minimal design and architecture or scientific matters. It completely bypassed TV such as Tomorrow’s World in the 80s, because the 80s weren’t futuristic enough for it! Only now, with our sleek oracle-slates  are we ready for it…
Well, some of us are anyway.
I’m digressing, sort of, talking too much about Musik Von but that’s because I put this and Zuckerzeit in the same bracket.
Although those albums are technically by 2 different bands, Zuckerzeit has Michael Rother’s absent fingerprints all over it.  His Elka drum machine tick-tocking to keep the electro-pulse driving and the repetition of patterns that build and shift around a central theme (Neu! style) permeate the larger percentage of this outstanding solar system of ideas. He is even credited as producer but I think that’s the generous nature of Roedelius and Moebius saying “thanks for the use of the equipment” as he was away working on Neu 75 at the time.
Also, I think, it says “thanks for joining in and discovering with us so we now have the skills and the tools to do this….”
 
Hollywood (R)
Confession time again… When I first heard Hollywood I didn’t quite get it. Too densely packed and claustrophobic in the first few seconds of the track. And then I find that it only gets busier… “Jesus! This is an aptly named band” being my initial response as the cluster of beats, notes, and sonic swirls bustled my brain like an over-complicated instruction manual. “Argh! Make it stop!”…
After skipping to the next track and then getting into the rest of the record for a week or so, I felt brave enough to go back and face my confusion about Hollywood.
Shit the bed! Once you put your head right in there the patterns of this track are prised apart and it reveals itself as an ingenious product of carefully planned sound-design. I don’t know how many people I’ve now forced this track onto exclaiming “1974 man!” and watched their faces as they contemplate how a man old enough to have been forcibly conscripted into the Hitler youth could have beaten the likes of Aphex Twin and Boards Of Canada to the font of avant-electro.
Roedelius has made a 4/4 drum loop out of a forwards, then reverse bar or so, and then clustered around it a 3/4 clever-clever chord structure that would make even smug fuckers like Thom Yorke feel that little bit more superior.
He hasn’t stopped there though. Tuneless synthetic adornments stretch and coil around the backing track, sometimes whizzing by like a hover-car and give the listener a sense of some distant future world. Further off into the future even than from where I write this in 2012. In fact, I should write a letter that starts:
Dear Bladerunner,
You missed a massive trick by getting Vangelis to do your poxy soundtrack.
Saxophones??? In the future??? Please fuck off…
Here is a copy of Hollywood from Zuckerzeit for you to weep over.
Caramel (M)
Coming on like a futuristic Batman theme this track kicks off with Rother’s drum machine for a bar and a half and, straight away, Moebius has wrong-footed us as, when he drops the nagging superhero bassline, you realise he has reversed the beat to suit his own design. And that bassline, coupled with the loose chugging beat, is to propel us for the next 3 minutes with absolutely no let up whatsoever.
And praise be, for it is fucking mighty! If recorded a few years later this track would have been sequenced and all human inflections ironed out but here Moebius gets to record the Bat-bass over and over, adding cheeky passages and pauses to detract from the repetitiousness and heaping on some lower octave copies for any Kraut-Dub freaks out there.
Similarly to Hollywood, this becomes a musical canvas which Moebius then paints a freehand, stream of consciousness keyboard exploration on top of and, before you know it, if you’re following, you’re getting higher and higher and higher.
Somehow, Moebius has designed the backing track AND his feeling around on the keys to get this track to build to a point where it levitates, holding it there for as long as possible until he whacks die rhythmus maschine through a swirling phase-shifter and the track spins off into space..
I’d love to drop this tune to a bunch of E-ed up ravers and see their faces lighting up, gurning harder as it spirals up and up and up! A three minute lift to ecstasy!
Proto-rave then? Well, not quite but it is a precursor to some kind of joyous dance music. Its idiosyncratic style just hasn’t quite caught on.
Rote Riki (M)
I say that previous track Caramel spins off into space because it fades into Rote Riki. Mind bending Wibbletronica featuring the bleeping computations and received radio waves of distant stars and planets.
If you were to point all the worlds satellite dishes out into the cosmos to pick up radio signals from every direction possible, then feed that info through those fine needled graph generators, THEN put those readings, with peaks and troughs and recordings of burst stars and black matter chatter, through individual Moogs, Korgs and whatever else became the future-retro sound definers of the era; then you might come eclose to getting the kind of nonsense that Moebius has conjured up here.
As well as all that impossi-wibble nonsense, you have the effect of broken hydraulics, as though the Smash Robots have had a Ketamine party and can’t quite make it to the bathroom; as well as pips and pops of activated circuitry, lonely Clangers adrift in the cold vacuum of space, blips and bloops of almost African bongo rhythms and a 2 note repetitive bass-Hoover sucking your brain up in one, then flooping it back out into your headbone over and over and over and over…
And I fucking love it! I can hear the cradle of civilisation in here as the bass-Hoover and bongo bring to mind an African Haxan in a trance-dance I saw on the Mohammed Ali film When We Were Kings. One day I’ll synch the two together as I’m positive she will be dancing in perfect rhythm and time.
But then, as earthly as that imagery is, there is also the sound of the universe chattering in a language were are desperate to understand all over Rote Riki. And perhaps the message here is that the Witch-Tribes are more connected to what’s out there than our scientists will ever be.
Rosa (R)
As beautiful and blustery as the coming of October.
Somehow Roedelius has managed to conjure an Oriental garden in the full throes of Autumn out of blocky Atari-esque keyboards. 8 bit at best, they flash across my inner ear like the crude graphics of the games console of old in a brightly cascading manner. All the while accompanied by occasional clunks and thunks of delay treated drum machine, a tough, chunky bass and, keeping with the Oriental theme, a high keyboard line that would suit being sung by Zhou Xuan, the Golden Voice of Shanghai.
The result is wistful and almost sad. A piece of music that sounds like its remembering or trying to keep the memory of something alive.
Maybe just a wonderful summer and suddenly, we’re caught unawares by the onset of a wild and windy seasonal change? Hmm, a bit too poetic perhaps but whatever it is, it’s got me and this is the first taste of Roedelius showing his ability to conjure deep emotional phases from state of the art, modern machinery of the mid 70s.
 
Caramba (M)
Moebius is at it again! Stirring up a strange brew of, well, where to start really…
As we’ve established, it’s 1974 in rural Germany. So, how has Moebius invented the sound of grimey Hip Hop and Gansta Rap backing tracks while surrounded by trees, valleys and tweety birds?
Here’s how…
A fairly rudimentary stabbing keyboard line starts the track coupled with the sound of an aerosol can spraying luminescent goo into your ears. A lassoing bass part starts up and then a meaty drum loop fades in, clocking along fiercely while the second keyboard part clambers around your mind like giant metallic spider legs and instantly I’m 8 years old watching Knight Rider again. That 2nd keyboard line sounds like what the LED dashboard of Kit the car LOOKS like: red glowing cyber electronics calculating each bend in the road ahead.
This all sounds pretty mean when bolted together and could well be where the Knight Rider theme came from, hence the Hip Hop element mentioned earlier. Busta Rhymes just needs to dig down a little further to get to the source. Then, just as it’s established itself as a bad ass batch of radioactive proto-grime, our man throws some spastic slide guitar over the top and now he’s fused New York Hip Hop with New York No Wave a good decade before any of those kids were out of school.
Fotschi Tong (R)
Roedelius steps in to soothe away any adrenaline that might have begun to flood the blood after the semi-sinister bwad-bwoy stance of Caramba.
This is in a similarly picturesque setting as Rosa and is part of a kind of triptych of tracks, all with the same thread running through them, namely Rosa, Fotschi Tong and Marzipan.
Less moving than Rosa this may be but its just as pretty. You get a sense that Roedelius has fixated on the ebony keys of the assorted Farfisas and synths on hand. Gliding his way up and down the keyboard to keep the flavour of the orient trickling sweetly into your ears. A sure fire sign that the man is in meditative mode for a good period of his time at Forst which will come to fruition with greatness on next album Sowiesoso.
What is also noticeable straight away with Roedelius’s tracks is that he loves to fuck around with the drum machine. Pushing the volume and increasing the delay in places to make the track ebb and swell at his wont. Also, this is not a regular setting of a push button marked “Bossanova” or “Meringue,” it’s the product of some kind of fusion of who knows how many settings, probably recorded and spliced together to get something new. To take “newness” into new territories.
James (M)
In which Moebius puts the meat of White Boy Blues through the mincer of Krautrock.
Good lad. White boys have been pishing all over the legacy of Afro-American folk music for far too long now. Throw Eric “Fucking” Clapton into that mincer too if you can find him.
In fact, let’s imagine that he has…
Let’s imagine a crowd of REAL Bluesmen sat watching Moebius grab Clapton and his moribund taped efforts, stretching them until they wobble and warp before tying his wrists together with it, kidnap victim style, and bundling Clappo and his wares into the Kraut-Mincer.
Out the front comes the sound you would expect…
An elongated almost-riff of blues-dirge.
The Bluesmen break into a grin…
Next up, Gary “Sodding” Moore is stood playing a “dum dee dum dee dum” drivel as Moebius kicks him in, head first. The mangled meat of which emerges like a pink paste of moronic 12 bar blues from the mincer output.
Chuckles now heard from our crowd…
Finally, Jeff “I’m The Greatest” Beck thinks he can impress our crowd by keeping it simple with a two note twiddle while gurning that “I’m really expressing my inner anguish” face.
*SMECK*
Get into the mincer, dickhead, and show some respect!
A painfully nagging and shrill effort is spat out as a coarse pâté of sound that our True Blues now gorge on, laughing and thanking Moebius emphatically as our man takes a bow…
I take perverse pleasure in imagining this scenario, I’m sure you can tell but, to balance it out, I’ll add that somewhere, backstage to all of these goings on, Peter Green is getting a blow-job off Uschi Obermaier, listening intently thinking “S’alright this!”
Marzipan (R)
As sweet and sticky as its title, Marzipan is a carnival of gentle Japanese spirits seen perhaps as cloud-characters rolling by your inebriated eye. This is the third and final part of Roedelius’s Oriental meanderings and it’s maybe due to his consistency and the mellifluous nature of these tracks that Soweisoso (Cluster’s next album) is such a resounding success.

The song quickly fades in with descending black keys dripping sweet rain onto a Japanese Maple and instantly, we get the sense that Roedelius is out to push waves of his own contentment into the world to see what influence he can have. Quite the opposite of what Moebius is up to on this same album but that’s what makes Cluster work so well… The darkness and light combined always conspire to bring about something totally new.

Again, the drum machine is set to no defined pattern but ticks and clicks along in the most relaxed manner of all his tracks here. Centred around one chord that bubbles along like water on a rolling boil, Roedelius keeps it simple and wonderfully easy going with his adornments and it’s only after a few listens that I notice how it fades in at the start and out at the end and I wonder, “There must be more. What else has he kept from us?”
Rotor (M)
Another out there sound mash adventure from Moebius. I might not be as convinced by this one as I am by Caramel or Rote Riki but it certainly does strap on a completely brainless Ren & Stimpy smile, hurtle along at too fast a pace and is sort of enough to drive you nuts! This is probably an old style drum machine at its fastest possible setting and Moebius is, straight away, out to push the limit of what the machinery can give and listener can take.
Blip Blop Blop Bleeeep Blop Bloop

Blip Blop Blop Bleeeep Blop Bloop

Blip Blop Blop Bleeeep Blop Bloop
Blip Blop Blop Bleeeep Blop Bloop
…is just one part of the madness gannin’ doon here and it IS like a Rotor; ever spinning, with one word written on each of its three blades as it rushes past your minds eye:
GET
ME
OUT!
But like the palindromic title, you just end up back at the start for another dizzying cycle around a musical hall of mirrors, not knowing what the fuck is up, down, left or right.
Moebius then takes the track and grates some hard edged LSD on top by way of the synthetic sound of scraping metal, and all of a sudden you’ve found your mind travelling on a funny old ticket.

This has an element of what I call Rubber Ducky Music. That feeling you remember from when you were young and simple, surrounded by bubbles in your bathtub, grinning insanely and leaving lots of spare braincells with nothing to do but play chess with each other while one synapse glowed dimly with “bubble fun.”
That’s where this one is coming from for me and in saying that, I’ve just made myself like it a little bit more.
Heisse Lippen (R)
The final track of a dizzying exploration of sound possibilities and Roedelius has book-ended the album with the sound of future modes of transport… First a queasy ride in a hover car on Hollywood and now we are zipping along on a lazer powered monorail around a domed future metropolis. If this is the sound of the future then, sadly, it’s not the future we are experiencing in our current times and climes. This is the sound of a successful and happy race who have carefully honed down the perfect design for living and have left it, untouched, to run itself.
This analogy works pretty well for this track too, if I do say so myself… The track starts with a benign and bright sounding keyboard in waltz time to put you in the right mood. After only a couple of cycles, Roedelius races the fader up and the rest of the track comes hurtling in and feels like being suddenly transporting onto a bullet train travelling at 300 miles per hour.
Woah!
And then… that’s pretty much it! He has a couple more subtle parts to add in the first few bars but he KNOWS he’s on to a good thing and let’s the track play so you can sit inside it and look around. For the first time on a Roedelius track the drum machine is left to fizz along untouched and push the momentum at peak velocity. Spaciously echoing and simple key-bass holds the theme together and the initial waltz keyboard part slots in and rotates in an ever revolving fashion in the background.
And, naturally enough, a ride at 300 mph gets you where you’re going pretty quickly and after two and a half minutes the track suddenly drops to the bass and fizzing drum pattern before halting to a close with the manic laughing of a carnival clown.
I have to thank Roedelius & Moebius as this album completely altered my understanding of music. The 70s were all about guitar music for me for years and years and, while I was well aware of how great synths are and their almost limitless capabilities, I always had them down as augmenting a guitar band really well. Now I see the flip side: that a guitar can perhaps slot in here and there in an electronic setting and a new understanding grew in my mind: guitars are ok so long as you don’t treat them with too much respect.
And with that, listen to James from Zuckerzeit again, the only all-guitar track on the album and smirk at how Moebius has brought piss-taking to a new level.
Who says Germans are lacking a sense of humour NOW?!
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2 Responses to Cluster – Zuckerzeit

  1. Ahhhh, Uschi Obermaier

  2. Gavin Gordon says:

    Great review. I’ve only heard Caramel, so far. So I’m super excited for the postman to bring me the whole album.

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