Some bands last for the long haul, some labels struggle.
Philadelphians got a surprise performance from the legendary German electronic band Cluster this past Saturday at St. Mary’s Parish Hall as part of The Gatherings series. The show was originally billed as a concert by Tim Story, Dwight Ashley and original Cluster member Hans-Joachim Roedelius (A.R.S.(e), the other half of Cluster, but Dieter Moebius, was flown in at the last moment.
Cluster was always one of the quirkiest and idiosyncratic of the German electronic bands. At once more avant-garde and more D.I.Y, they could be as charming as an electronic music box and as strident as a Stockhausen encomium. For me, their best albums remain Sowiesoso and Grosses Wasser. In this performance, their first in the U.S. since a 1996 tour, they struck a balance with Roedelius bringing in simple, Satie-like melodies while Moebius dutifully twiddled knobs, tweaked sequences and made funny noises. It was avant-garde, but with a welcome mat that invited anyone inside. The two musicians, now in their 60s and 70s, sat next to each other at a table covered with electronic detritus, only occasionally exchanging glances. From the middle of the house, they looked like two aged clerks, pouring over blueprints or maps. And by the way, they both looked much more vigourous than any of their Wikipedia photos.
The concert opened with a set from A.R.S.(e) that probed ambient terrain over darkly minimalist rhythmic pulses. Then Story and Roedelius then played music from their two wonderful CDs of ambient chamber music, Lunz and Inlandish. (Lunz was a CD of the Month a few years ago). As Roedelius played out his keyboard melodies, I had a thought that he might be the true Godfather of ambient chamber music, mixing an almost nostalgic sense of classicism, with thoroughly abstract sounds. At eh end of the set, all four musicians got on stage for a surprisingly controlled electro-jam that reminded me of sets you’d see in the 60s at places like the Knitting Factory and Painted Bride.
All in all, the most welcome return of a 70s electro-icon this year. And the good news is the reason Roedelius and Moebius are both here is to record a new Cluster CD at Tim Story’s studios.
On a sad note, I relate the passing of Foundry Records, an American label that was the spawn of these early electronic sounds. Since 1997, Foundry trawled the darker, dissonant regions of electronics, especially enjoying the drone zone. But they’d occasionally pop to the surface with albums like “Vast” by Saul Stokes, an Echoes CD of the Month in April of 2006. ( Listen to a profile of Saul Stoke’s new album, Villa Galaxia). It’s tough enough running a record label these days. Even harder when you shred the borders of music convention. If you go to their website, click on the logo next to the R.I.P. to see what they had to offer. Fond farewell to Michael Bentley, who also recorded on the label.