When I saw them at the Great American Music Hall in May 2008, they performed behind glasses of white wine, much as I imagine they've always done. But the whooshing, cartilage-shaking sounds emanating from the sound system bore only a passing resemblance to the intricately sequenced music they are best known for. Whether you hear prime-era records like Zuckerzeit (Brain, 1974) or Soweisoso (Sky, 1976) as krautrock, protoambient, kosmische, or plain electronic, the duo knew how to build bridges. Thirty-eight years after their beginnings as Cluster an early incarnation of the band, spelled with a "K," included Conrad Schnitzler and formed two years earlier the band has just released Qua (Nepenthe), a record whose surface strangeness reveals a band plunging again into the primordial waters they tested with their debut.
Pioneer status is always shaky krautrock reissues in particular seem to be coming fast and thick. Still, Cluster (Philips, titled Cluster '71 for Water's 2006 reissue) is more than an assemblage of cleverly processed sounds (few synthesizers were used), it's a successful stab at a new language one that incorporates academic experiments and pop music textures but doesn't really belong in the company of other records. From their sophomore album, Cluster II (Brain, 1972) through 1979's Grosses Wasser (Sky) Moebius and Roedelius structured their early experimentation by splitting the difference between the former's ambient washes of sound and the latter's baroque and whimsical sense of melody. Counting contemporary releases in collaboration with Neu!'s Michael Rother (as Harmonia) and Brian Eno, these dudes broke a lot of ground in their first decade of existence.
Zuckerzeit's "Hollywood" is a good summary of what synth/loop questers like Arp or White Rainbow draw from the band's working methods: percussion is built around an unquantized loop, giving the woody guitar burps that ride above a tumbling momentum and the icy euro synths that bleed down from higher frequencies a strange tilt. Look close enough and you can't miss the gaps that let the warmth in. Despite the obvious futurism of their work, Cluster were also secret classicists Michael Rother's solo work of the same period, or the Berlin techno that followed in its wake, appear like cold, rationalized Le Corbusier edifices compared to Cluster's rambling sense of space.
What Qua drives home is the sense that while Cluster never comes across as mechanized, neither does it come across as particularly hospitable. The straight lines of Rother's music or the subperceptual, soft contours of Eno's still give a sense of movement toward a better, more human world naturally so, considering these were some of the principals of early new age. With the exception of album closer "Imtrerion," billowy and warm like the coda to some forgotten shoegaze record, most of Qua is made up of sketches that skew toward the dark and circular the downtempo time-warp of "Na Ernel" is more Bristol than Berlin. Although the album is filled with miniatures, it's probably the closest in feel to the formless expanses of their debut. Possibly, the band's returning to where it started because few of the people it has influenced have done the same. Just as likely, they're far enough ahead of the competition to be standing behind them. (Brandon Bussolini)
RIECHMANN When he powdered his face a morbid, ghostly white for the cover of his debut solo album Wunderbar (Sky, 1978), how could Wolfgang Riechmann know that he would soon be dead, the victim of a knife attack?