Review by James Jackston Toth
1975’s Epsilon in Malaysian Pale is the second solo album by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, recorded piecemeal over a single summer in various German cities. It was released, impressively, in the months between Tangerine Dream’s landmark 1974 album Phaedra and 1975’s Rubycon.
Using a limited sound palette of field recordings, modular and semi-modular analog synthesizers, and a great deal of mellotron, Froese—inspired by his travels to Malaysia and beyond during Tangerine Dream’s 1975 Australian tour—creates, in just over thirty minutes, a panoramic, exotic fever dream that has influenced everyone from Bowie, who credits the album as a chief inspiration on his Berlin trilogy, to legions of modern day electronic artists trafficking in tropical Fourth World fug.
The title track begins with what sounds like a scrambled radio transmission of a flock of chirping birds chasing a locomotive before giving way to the airy, processed flute and mellotron that together provide the piece’s melodic anchor. Just as various themes and motifs begin to emerge from this tranquil but deceptively ominous bedrock, the distant train returns, and we find ourselves in a new and strange environment: the flute and mellotron now vie for space with phased simulated strings and the kind of percolating, bubbling step sequence with which Froese and his legendary group are synonymous. The piece concludes, far too soon, with a seemingly unrelated coda that more than hints at Froese’s post-1977 work scoring seemingly every third Hollywood film soundtrack.
As beautiful as the title track is, “Maroubra Bay”—which, like the title track, takes up an entire LP side—is, for my money, the draw here, and one of Froese’s most original and evocative works. Inspired by the Sydney beachside suburb of its title, the track begins with a herald of dissonant and dense tones that recall some of Giacinto Scelsi’s more bone-chilling choral work. Soon, however, the clouds part to reveal the sweetly anthropic sound of the EMS synthesizer (few artists in the history of electronic music have managed to make synthesizers sound as organic as Froese). The soft, elemental sounds that occasionally wash over (but never drown out) the mesmerizing, propulsive sequencer and hide-and-seek mellotron masterfully conjure an imaginary three dimensional space. While the piece strongly recalls the Tangerine Dream work of this period—Rubycon, in particular—there is something distinctly surreal and transitive about “Maroubra Bay,” an unlikely masterpiece that seamlessly blends composed machine music and musique concrete. There is nothing in Froese’s vast catalog quite like it.
There are Tangerine Dream fans who feel that Froese’s solo work during this period is redundant and therefore inessential; I am decidedly not among these naysayers. In fact, my feeling is that the absence of then bandmates Peter Baumann and Chris Franke allows Froese’s particular talents and affinities to shine all the brighter, especially when we are spared, as we are on Epsilon in Malaysian Pale, his oft-derided guitar playing.
In the mid 2000s, Froese controversially re-released Epsilon in Malaysian Pale in dramatically altered form, with a new mix, new cover art, and—most scandalously—new overdubs. While I am not as appalled as others in the Tangerine Dream community by the results of this and similarly blasphemous tinkerings by its creator, I do believe that locating the original mix, which as of this writing can only be heard in full on the original vinyl edition and on 2012’s Solo (1974-1983): The Virgin Years box set, is crucial.