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Time to dream

Edgar Froese, the founder member of Tangerine Dream died unexpectedly last week from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 70.

Edgar Froese around the time of Electronic Meditation (1970)

Froese was born in 1944 in a region of East Prussia (now the Russian city of Sovetsk) and settled in West Berlin where he went on to study art and sculpture in the mid-60s. He formed a Beat group called The Ones who toured widely playing songs such as soul classic In the Midnight Hour. It was during this time that he visited Salvador Dali at his villa in Cadaqués where he was inspired to reject the dominant Anglo-American form of popular music. On his return to Berlin, he dropped into the newly founded Zodiak Arts Lab and adopted the moniker Tangerine Dream. The first TD album Electronic Meditation (1970), made with drummer Klaus Schulze, unconventional musician Conrad Schnitzler (who played dried peas, typewriter and manipulated taped sounds), organist Jimmy Jackson and flautist Thomas Keyserling, was not really ‘electronic’ but treated conventional instruments.

Their third release, Zeit, a double album from 1972, is a bleak, minimalist masterpiece from the rather dramatic cello quartet opening through to the very end. Based on the philosophy that time is motionless and only exists in our own minds, the shifting sounds, overlain and treated, make me imagine that I’m lost and alone in deep space. There’s a hint of strummed guitar in part 3 (Origin of Supernatural Probabilities) but apart from the cellos, that’s the only discernible instrument; Zeit is also notable for being the first TD album that brought together seminal line-up of Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann.

DJ John Peel and Virgin Records boss Richard Branson were primarily responsible for the popularity of TD in the UK after Peel named Atem (1973) his album of the year and following their signing to the fledgling Virgin label, Phaedra (1974) reached no 15 in the charts despite only selling a couple of thousand copies in their native Germany. Phaedra was my introduction to TD (thanks to school friend Alan Lee) but I prefer Rubycon (1975) which I bought very shortly after it was released and though I didn’t buy the next album Ricochet (1975) until much later, I like that very much too, particularly the short motif played on guitar. At the time I didn’t realise it was comprised of live music recorded during their 1975 European tour and it wasn’t until I began buying vinyl again in the mid twenty-teens that I discovered much of it was taken from a performance at what is now my local concert hall, Fairfield Halls in Croydon.

Phaedra (1974) - The start of the Virgin years

Some commentators don’t think that the term ‘progressive’ should be applied to Zeit, partly on sophist philosophical grounds, asking ‘how can you progress if time doesn’t really exist?’ However, their output during the Virgin years is a maturing of the Kosmische sound that fully embraces the spirit of prog where the sequencer comes to the fore. Whereas Zeit, with its subtle sonic shifts that might allow it to be bundled under the ‘ambient’ tag in the same way that Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are ambient, the subsequent TD releases hold something extra. I’m struggling to find a suitable term but I guess ‘atmospheric’ will do. Though inherently rhythmical, sequencers weren’t always used by the band to provide rhythm; their pulses weave in and out of the sonic washes like snapshots of important moments in time, mayfly fragments in the history of the universe.

The band may not have been musical virtuosos but they didn’t emulate British prog; their expertise was in the utilisation of developing technologies and making best use of Chris Franke’s application of minimalist technique and the influence of modern composer György Ligeti. Though they incorporated the wind instrument at various points in their career, their use of Mellotron flute – also present on early Froese solo albums – is one of the reasons I really like the classic line-up. The Mellotron was also used to great effect on Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares from Phaedra where it was employed to emulate staccato violin, an unconventional use of the instrument and certainly not 'ambient'. In fact, their use of Mellotron is quite different from that of contemporary symphonic progressive rock bands, sculpting their own sonic territory. I’m one of those people who ascribe this facet of mid-70s TD as being responsible for a major redefinition of the scope of prog and I was only too happy to rush out to buy Rubycon when it was released.

Rubycon (1975) - my first Tangerine Dream purchase

The next studio release Stratosfear (1976) makes too many concessions towards mainstream rock for my liking. Why on earth did Froese use a harmonica? Stratosfear may have boasted a more polished production than the live material on Ricochet and 1977’s Encore but that’s to be expected if you’re editing live tapes for release. While all the studio material I’ve heard up to this point is well produced, I believe Stratosfear suffers from what appears to be a decision to embrace a degree of conformity or conversely, as a move away from their pioneering experimentation.

Coincidence or not, Peter Baumann quit Tangerine Dream after the completion of the 1977 US tour that resulted in Encore – he’d temporarily left on two previous occasions, in 1973 prior to returning for Phaedra and was also absent for a 1975 tour of Australia - and I lost interest in collecting Tangerine Dream music around this time as it became more and more difficult to find new things to write in the idiom that they’d created. It’s interesting that some commentators regard this period in the late 70s as a move towards a more melody-driven progressive rock sound before they adopted New Age music tropes, whereas I’d suggest the change wasn’t towards prog, but that TD were becoming more industry-friendly at a time when the entire progressive rock genre was being reined in by the commercial requirements of the record labels, where the only means of survival was to change.

Encore (1977)

Having foolishly divested myself of Rubycon, the only Tangerine Dream album in my collection before heading off to university in London, I began to buy their CDs in the early 90s, realising that I genuinely missed listening to their mid-70’s releases and the digital disc seemed to have superseded previous formats used for playing recorded music. The first CD album I bought was the 1991 compilation From Dawn ‘til Dusk which featured tracks from Zeit, Atem, Le Parc, Underwater Sunlight, Tyger and Livemiles before buying Phaedra and Rubycon, both of which were absent from that compilation. I’d actually bought a copy of Underwater Sunlight (1986) on vinyl for my brother-in-law, having heard that he liked Tangerine Dream although much of his record collection was made up of Neil Diamond records! Apparently he’d been to see TD playing live but I’m unsure if he was present at the Fairfield Halls concert on 23rd October 1975 where much of Ricochet was recorded or if he’d seen them elsewhere.

Livemiles (1988)

A good friend gave me a series of the later Virgin years CDs that he’d replaced with more definitive versions, spanning Encore to Hyperborea (1983) and during discussions about their production values and the changes in style we both agreed that Song of the Whale (from Underwater Sunlight) was their last great track. Furthermore, he pointed out that Chris Franke left the band one studio album later and believes there is a direct correlation between the decline in quality of TD material and Franke's exit which would mirror the qualitative decline I believe was set in train following the departure of Baumann in 1977. There are rumours that Franke is sitting on a pile of live recordings of the band from the 1970s and 80s and it’s been speculated that there is now a chance that these recordings will see the light of day as the deteriorating relationship between Froese and Franke following the latter’s departure was the reason the music hasn’t been released.

Another reason for my affinity for Tangerine Dream is the album artwork. The care taken over album design and photography suggested a desire to put the music and presentation on an equal footing – I’d specifically pick out interesting-looking LP sleeves while browsing in record stores – finding the artwork, largely a collaborative effort between Edgar and his wife Monique, as immersive as the music itself. My favourite cover is probably Phaedra with its amorphous images but I was very much seduced by the chocolate tones of the inside gatefold of Rubycon, the silhouette of Ricochet and the cosmic stepping stones of Stratosfear. And as much as I liked to look at the sleeve of Rubycon while playing the album it’s probably still my favourite album for donning a pair of headphones and listening to in the dark; a pure escapist experience whether you're exploring outer or inner space.

Froese’s legacy shouldn’t be underestimated. Other band members may have come and gone but the tinkering with the instrumentation and personnel served a purpose, working towards fulfilling the Froese vision. I happen to prefer the early Virgin years above all else, with its sublime album cover artwork and classic progressive rock sensibilities but whichever version of the group you prefer, Edgar Froese will be sorely missed.

Edgar Willmar Froese b. 6 June 1944 d. 20 January 2015

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