Our contributor Garry Todd has already dazzled us with his top tens of the golden age of folk and British psychedelia and has now turned his attention to this divisive genre. Sit back, pull up a Moog and settle down with us as we present Neonfiller’s Top Ten Krautrock Albums.
10. Tangerine Dream – Atem
Tangerine Dream had formed in West Berlin at the end of the 1960s. Arising from the gallery scene and art school they would soundscape happenings and multimedia events before putting out records. Atem was their fourth album and saw increasing use of synthesiser to augment mellotron, guitar, organ, piano and percussion.
Soon the synthesiser would dominate their sound, but on Atem it is still just one voice amongst many. It is no surprise that they would eventually move into soundtrack work as each track works on a programmatic basis as an imaginary soundtrack, small motifs arise within the overall soundscape, but mostly the tracks work as environments, places to escape to or from. Atem was John Peel’s album of the year in 1973 for good reason.
9. Ash Ra Tempel – Schwingungen
Coming out of the great power trio tradition of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ash Ra Tempel were rooted in blues rock to a greater extent than most of their contemporaries. Opening the album with a slow blues shuffle on Light: Look at your sun, you aren’t so far away in sound from Pink Floyd, but with the interstellar drift opening Darkness: Flowers must die this falls away and Ash Ra set sail for deep space. Drums kick in and additional percussion starts flailing as organ, guitar and bass lock together on a frantic groove.
Constant soloing by lead guitar rises and falls in the mix, saxophone bursts in whilst flanging and phasing effects drop in and out. All the while vocalist John L gets more frenzied, screaming of his disconnection from the universe and alienation. It’s clear that something has shaken free at the fade possibly John L’s mind. Side two opens with quiet drifting exploration, slide guitar, organ, piano, cymbals shimmer, there is no melody, it all about timbre. Slowly drums pick up in the mix and then drop out again, before a melody is brought in on wah-wah guitar with choral keening, and although it sounds a lot like the quieter moments of Pink Floyd’s Come in Number 51, your time is up on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack, this is no bad thing.
8. Harmonia – Deluxe
Michael Rother from Neu! had formed Harmonia with Cluster when Neu! first split in 1973. Their first album had been a perfect union of the both talents and Rother went on to produce Zuckerzeit for Cluster and then reform Neu! for Neu! 75.
Although lacking the bile of the Dinger tracks on Neu! 75 a great deal of the energy and sound of those tracks continues on Deluxe. Rhythm, repetition and gliding guitar lines combine with synth arpeggios to streamlined driving effect. Insanely catchy riffs and chants on Monza ( Rauf und Runter) will have you singing along and pogoing in short order.
7. Amon Düül II – Yeti
The muso-splinter group from the original Amon Düül commune were serious about rocking out in acid fried splendour on their second album, a double which gave them room to sprawl. One of the great psychedelic albums from gatefold sleeve to vinyl grooves. Fuzz bass, pummelling drums, twin electric guitars, keyboards, violin and soaring vocals throughout render maximum sensory assault.
The first album is studio based with a big influence coming from Frank Zappa, the second album is live and taken up with a monster jam with a large degree of improvisation. Taken as a whole it rocks hard.
6. Kraftwerk – Kraftwerk
The first Kraftwerk album was a much a product of producer Conny Plank and his studio skills as the compositional chops of Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. Building on organ, flute, bass and drums, Plank takes the mantric music and subjects it to various layers of distortion and studio processing stirring in sound effects and tapes. This is heard most clearly on second track Stratovarius which starts as a long keyboard drone manipulated with reverb, phasing and stereo panning until it hits a tape sequence of what sounds like ancient wooden machinery which leads to footsteps, then a drum kit falling down stairs and then a magnificent groove with a violin the source of magnificent feedback arcing over bass, drums, keyboards and guitar.
The tempo builds furiously up to a literal breakdown, everything stops and then slowly piece by piece it builds again until collapse leaves a plaintive violin line and sine wave synth. But that still isn’t the end. Playing in counterpoint they set the scene for a return of drums and fuzz guitar in a manic steadily intensifying riff until it just stops cold.
Currently Kraftwerk’s first three albums are not legitimately available for sale and have been out of print for over thirty years, a baffling state of affairs considering how exceptional and vibrant this music is.
5. Popul Vuh – In den Gärten Pharaos
Popul Vuh virtually invented all the tropes of ambient music with this album. It opens with the sound of flowing water, a Moog line floats over, a simple heartbeat rhythm appears briefly and drops out, the synth takes over and it sounds like we’ve entered a cavern. Congas start and we are on a journey to find the sun. Eventually we emerge from the cavern into the garden, lush electric Rhodes Piano lines shimmer in the heat haze, conga rhythms roll and at the end you’re back in the water hearing gentle waves lapping at the shore.
The second side commences with a magnificent deep organ chord which cycles through a descending sequence. Synthesised choral chords appear above that and occasional cymbal percussion rolls over like thunder and it builds and builds and builds, until drums roll in.
4. Cluster – Zuckerzeit
Cluster had previously been exponents of severe experimental synth noise, extremely spacy, occasionally atonal, no percussion. With Zuckerzeit they went pop applying techniques developed on previous albums to drum machine rhythm tracks, inventing a clunky kind of electro ten years early. Throughout the album simple rhythm tracks underpin synth arpeggios which twist turn and morph in counterpoint to each other, giving an overall sensation of relentless forward motion. The perfect soundtrack to a nightdrive through Babylon.
3. Neu – Neu 75
Neu had effectively broken up in 1973 following the troubled recording sessions for their second album. Michael Rother, the guitarist, and Klaus Dinger, the drummer, were at odds over the direction of the band. Rother tended towards trippy ambience, whereas Dinger was intent on rocking out. Having got back together to fulfil a contractual obligation to make a third album Neu proceeded to make an album of two very different halves.
The first side is Rother for the most part making ambient music, pretty and blissed out, the second side is Dinger and he is really pissed off, inventing something like punk as a by product. This contrast was always there on the other records, just not usually so blatant. Whatever the internal dynamics both sides are to be treasured, side one for beauty, side two for snarl.
2. Faust – The Faust Tapes
Fragments of songs collaged into a glorious rag bag of dislocated psychedelic noise. The Faust Tapes was an interim release put out when Faust signed to the fledgling Virgin Records in 1973. It sold at a special price of 48p, the price of a single at the time, and shifted 100,000 copies before it was deleted. Due to its collage structure and general unfinished nature it confounded and confused a goodly proportion of those who bought it at the time, but was probably responsible more than any other release at the time in bringing avant-garde techniques and tropes to a wider audience.
It is often weird but most episodes of drone or noise are quickly cross cut to melodies, then pure rhythm, back to drone, then more melody, into fake jazz, usually ending with sweet chanson – all the while being subjected to various studio treatments, echo, reverb, and filtering in an effort to further stretch out the soundscape. Not an album for fans of the well-crafted song.
1. Can – Tago Mago
Can had already blazed a new path for West German psych fans with their first two albums, tracks like ‘Yoo Doo Right’ and ‘Mother Sky’ long hypnotic mantras of awesome buzzing repetition. Tago Mago had to be a double to take on the sheer invention of the music pouring out of the band at this point.
A double album but with only seven tracks, two side long epics, only one song under six minutes. The album is essentially patterned after an acid trip, side one the preliminary scene setting, side two coming up, side three and start of side four you’ve been up a little too long and wandering if you’ll ever feel normal again when the last track comes on and it’s dawn, the trip is over and you are on the other side asking for warm beverages.
by Garry Todd.
Editor’s note: I was a little uneasy at first about referring to this collection as a top ten of Krautrock. Kraut is a particularly unpleasant term for something or someone from Germany dating back to the first world war. We are more than happy to change though if anyone is offended. JL