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Tangerine Dream - Union Chapel, Islington

23rd April 2018 (with Neil Jellis)

Tangerine Dream - Union Chapel, Islington

I’d never been to see a Tangerine Dream performance before, though I was present at the rather intimate premiere of the Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream film Revolution in Sound, part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival, screened at the Barbican Centre in November 2017; the closest I’d ever come to witnessing a band who played the same sort of music was ‘Berlin school’ devotees Node at the Royal College of Music in 2015.
My appreciation of Tangerine Dream spans back to being introduced to Phaedra (1974) by school friend Alan Lee and I bought 1975’s Rubycon shortly after its release based on the promise of its predecessor. I can’t remember where I first heard Ricochet which was largely recorded at a gig in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls on 23rd October 1975 but I distinctly recall not being over-impressed with subsequent release Stratosfear (1976) when I heard it at another friend’s house, believing it made too many concessions towards mainstream rock, including the use of harmonica. I imagine it was becoming ever more difficult to maintain originality and find new things to write in the idiom they’d created but I also think the change in use of the sequencer from pulsed rhythmic intervention to near-rigid substitute electronic drumming had the overall effect of making the group more industry-friendly. I sold my copy of Rubycon some time before I left school in 1978 but soon regretted letting it go as it’s one of the ultimate albums to listen to through headphones while sitting in the dark.
I bought a compilation CD From Dawn ‘til Dusk 1973 - 1988 in the early 90s, CDs of Phaedra in 2005 and Rubycon in 2009 and finally replaced my Phaedra and Rubycon CDs with original vinyl in 2017. My set of donated CDs (thanks, Neil) which complete the series Encore (1977) to Hyperborea (1983) has been supplemented over the last couple of years with pre-loved and reissued vinyl spanning from Alpha Centauri (1971) to Live Miles (1988).
Tangerine Dream’s brand of electronica was swiftly accepted by the fans of British progressive rock that were exposed to the band when Richard Branson signed them to Virgin Records. Though not necessarily virtuoso, the application of electronic keyboard-based instrumentation to the thinking of minimalist composers like György Ligeti put them at the forefront of a radical musical movement, with atmospheres created by sonic washes, sequencer pulses and haunting Mellotron, mapping both outer- and inner space.
My favourite line-up is the classic Froese-Franke-Baumann trio, responsible for the early-mid 70’s classics, and who performed in some unusual places for a rock band, like the cathedrals at Reims in France, Liverpool and Coventry. The latter two are modern architectural masterpieces but Reims Cathedral (Notre Dame de Reims) is an 81m high gothic building dating from 1211, lacking in facilities for a crowd of rock fans whose behaviour would lead to them being banned from playing in any Catholic church. The idea to perform electronic meditations in these sacred places was a stroke of genius, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs; as a layperson with an appreciation of architecture, I find this thoughtful, sometimes reflective and often searching music is somehow very fitting for the space.

My 2018 gig and holiday schedule was pretty tight and I went straight to the Union Chapel from Brescia via a flight from Verona to Gatwick, a distance of more than 1150km and a drop in temperature from 26oC in Verona to 14oC in Islington. I was under-dressed and chilly but relieved that the various modes of transport all seamlessly ran on time, and I thought I’d have to join the end of what was one of the biggest queues I’d seen for a long time (since Steven Wilson at The Troxy in March 2015) but I managed to find my ticket holder just before he reached the entrance and disappeared inside. The performances at the Union Chapel invited comparisons with the 1974 Reims show and Bianca Froese-Acquaye suggested that her husband Edgar would have approved of the setting when she introduced the evening’s proceedings. I suspect that many of the fans thought the venue was apt, too.

Froese-Acquaye had introduced the screening of the documentary at the Barbican, where she read an extract about meeting Jimi Hendrix from her husband’s autobiography, Tangerine Dream: Force Majeure which had been published a couple of months before, and held a Q&A session following the film. She had obviously been given instructions that the group should carry on following Edgar’s ‘change of cosmic address’ and the trio with the responsibility for the musical legacy, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, proved well qualified to do so, building on the critical acclaim of Quantum Gate (2017). I was a little concerned about the way Edgar Froese was addressed by his widow as she dedicated the performance to ‘our master’; this may have been accidental miscommunication but it did come across as though we were being initiated into some form of cult, with Quaeschning named as Froese’s ‘chosen successor’.
The set list seems to have been comprised mostly from 80’s material, plus a couple of tracks from Quantum Gate: It is Time to Leave When Everyone is Dancing and Roll the Seven Twice, compositions I really wasn’t familiar with but thoroughly enjoyed because it sounded as though each piece had the right balance of instrumentation despite the reliance on midi-triggers and programming; during the mid 80s Froese reworked some of their tracks and added new layers of keyboard, guitar and rhythm, a move regarded by many as detracting from the stark elegance of the originals. One of the songs in the first set reminded me of Phaedra and I wonder if it was part of the 2005 reworking of that album, which featured Quaeschning, especially as a little research suggests that the selection includes more recent, post-Froese reworkings. The second set was more reminiscent of 70’s TD; not only did they play Stratosfear but they also performed an extended improvisation, a Session in TD parlance, like one of the improvised pieces that made up their seminal live albums.
I had thought that the enigmatic Yamane was responsible for very little of the soundscape, as there were lengthy sections where her violin was held by her side, but I’m reliably informed she was responsible for triggering and controlling effects using Ableton Push.
There were a few moments where the electronic drums became a little cheesy but the sequencer-driven beats, a trademark of the Berlin School acts, were mostly imaginative. Some of the projections appeared a little dated, too, though most seemed apt, fitting in with the music and making it difficult to work out whether to watch the band or to watch the lights play over the neo-gothic interior of the chapel. On balance I was probably more impressed with the second set; especially the improvised piece which shifted in unpredictable ways and where the involvement of the whole trio was much more evident.
The whole event was really enjoyable, from the setting to the playing to the music itself. It didn’t matter that my preferred era of the band was one where there was less reliance on continuous sequences and the evolution of the tracks seemed more organic and free-form; I love Froese’s Mellotron work, rating both Aqua (1974) and Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975) as Mellotron classics but their adoption and employment of digital technology can’t be faulted, creating multiple layers of sound of uncertain origin that weaved and flowed over the crowd seated on the chapel’s pews. Like Froese before him, Quaeschning picked up a guitar during a couple of pieces but I wasn’t able to attribute a particular sound to the instrument; perhaps it was used for triggering Midi patches.
The whole evening was well worth the dash from Brescia to Islington - and it may even soon be possible to re-live the experience because the entire performance was filmed.

This album review was taken from the blog ‘Dreams wide awake’ originally posted on 8th May 2018

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