Revivalism is an essential component of creating a cultural body of work that spans generations. In the arts, originality is usually crowned king, but reviving and celebrating previous artists might be just as important. Without being influenced by older generations, there would be no canon, no tradition, no common thread tugging artists together into a geist-ridden heap. Which brings me to Cluster. With nearly 40 years of albums behind them, Cluster is a German experimental band without a cohesive sound, but instead a wide-ranging sonic landscape defined as avante-garde and inaccessible to many. But in the pantheon of krautrockers, Cluster is a bright star in its firmament, a group of sonic experimenters whose influence on modern music is being recognized as they kick off a California tour. You can check them out tonight, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Big Sur, Saturday, May 24, in Santa Cruz or Sunday, May 25 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Cluster got their start at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin in 1969, an experimental live music venue and art collective that lasted only a few months, but played an important role in developing the spacey German sound of krautrock, sometimes called Kosmische Musik. Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler emerged from the collective as Kluster and went on to release three albums before Schnitzler left the group and the duo re-formed as Cluster. As a trio, the group was highly improvisational with live performances that involved everything from synthesizers to alarm clocks and kitchen utensils. As a duo, Cluster went on to a lengthy career recording albums into the late 1990s that experiment with feedback, ambient sounds, and atmospherics.
I got a chance to listen to the 3-CD box set Kluster: 1970-1971, a compilation of some of Kluster's earliest works (out this week from the San Francisco-based Water label), which was recorded by the band's first line-up, when Kluster was still spelled with a "K."
I also checked out Cluster 71, the first recording by the band's second incarnation. Composed of three tracks named for their lengths, Cluster 71 is a series of aural investigations that feature pulsing synths, drones, and feedback. Sometimes lulling you into a peaceful reverie, sometimes escalating into more urgent sequences with rapid percussive tempos or massively-distorted unease, the album is a feast of German proto-industrial noise that wouldn't be unusual to find in any modern experimental music venue, like Recombinant Media Labs here in San Francisco. The album was the first major label release for Cluster, and forms a distinct phase in their musical evolution.
Recorded in just two days in 1976, Sowiesoso features Cluster in a very different place, a much more peaceful, almost orchestral frame of mind. A tinny and twangy tone runs through the album, which features songs with more traditionally song-like qualities, including harmonious chords and recognizable string parts. There is even a tribal and slightly bluesy track called "Umleitung" that features chanting and shouting in combination with a driving beat and even a little cowbell for a more organic feel. It is fitting that "Umleitung" means "re-direction" or "detour" in German, as the entire album is a conceptual departure for Cluster. Brian Eno had worked with Moebius and Roedelius on a different project prior to the recording of Sowiesoso, and his influence here is evident.
The final album in the compilation is Cluster & Eno, which features Eno's instantly obvious handprints all over it. An echoey, repeating piano opens the album in fine Eno fashion, eventually giving way to the more somber synth and guitar duet of "Steinsame." Strongly ambient in quality, Cluster & Eno continues Cluster's migration towards a more melodic and accessible direction. The tracks are shorter and more thematically contained, with the final track "Für Luise" one of the standouts. Cluster's experiments in ambient music continued through the '90s, ending only when the band took a ten-year hiatus in 1997.
Cluster's upcoming tour is an obvious don't-miss chance to see the krautrockers in person, performing in their customary improvisational fashion. The 4-date west coast tour on Memorial Day Weekend features shows that are custom curated with a mix of openers, DJs, VJs, apparel artists and great venues (including the legendary Henry Miller library in Big Sur). San Francisco's turn is on May 25th at the Great American Music Hall with openers Tussle (SF) and White Rainbow (PDX). For tickets and information visit donutsparty.com.