West Germany in the 1970s was a fertile time for progressive, mind-altering music. A host of young renegades, out to author a new German free from the specter of the past, forged deep into psychedelic, experimental, and electronic sound. When these astonishing output of albums arrived on English shores, it was dubbed krautrock
, but this was no genre based around a singular sound. From psychedelic guitar freaks to cold synthesizer nerds, krautrockers weren't out to sound like each other, but like no other music ever authored. These are the defining albums from one of the most inspired eras in alternative music history.
Over the decades, Edgar Froese's project Tangerine Dream slowly devolved into pitiable new-age synth muzak, but when they were founded the band were operating at the height of avant-gardism. Working with cellist Klaus Schulze (who'd go on to found Ash Ra Tempel) and percussionist Conrad Schnitzler, the first incarnation of Tangerine Dream worked at the edges of futuristic psychedelia. There's not a synthesizer in sight as Electronic Meditation
throws scratchy strings, cacophonous drums, trills of flute, shards of guitar, ominous medieval organ, and silly sonic games (a church sermon... looped backwards!) through a barrage of electronic effects. Where Froese would soon head into 'safe' ambience, here things feel more dangerous and unhinged.
Born in a commune in Munich (whose ranks included the infamous Baader Meinhof gang), Amon Düül II were a communal rockband. On their landmark second record, the 73-minute double-album Yeti
, they were a drop-in jam totaling seven full-time members —including someone simply named 'Shrat' on bongos— and plenty of part-time helpers. More than any other krautrock act, Amon Düül were heavily indebted to British prog-rock; their crazy, completely over-the-top compositions matching virtuoso playing with radical stylistic shifts and an 'anything goes' spirit. With twittering flutes, banged gongs, scrapes of violin, gnarly guitar solos, and all kinds of ethnic percussion, Amon Düül II sound, in hindsight, like a band forever 'feeling the vibe.'
A bunch of free-jazz musicians taken under the spell of rock'n'roll (and, well, acid, too), Guru Guru took their experimental, interpretive, improvisational training and applied it to psychedelic rock. Their debut album —named, with no irony, UFO— voyages headlong into the far-reaches of the known audio galaxy; the band ringing out all kinds of crazy sounds from an utterly normative line-up of guitar, bass, and drums. The album's 10-minute title-track is a fearless plunge into totally freeform, utterly freaky trance-states, and it is followed by the fried, flute-strangling closer "Der LSD Marsch," whose title gives a pretty good example of the imbibing habits of Guru Guru, both at the time and in the future.
On their swaggering debut, 1969's Monster Movie
, Cologne outfit Can exploded rock'n'roll's restrictions with a riotous 20-minute jam called "Yoo Doo Right." Students of free-jazz and the avant-garde, Can played exploratory jams lasting for hours, before bassist Holger Czukay would cut and splice the tapes into new sonic forms. Their second record took Can's essential duality —a hedonistic live band of sweaty, hairy dudes doubling as existentialist studio eggheads— to a logical extreme. The double LP's first disc rocks out groovy, psychedelic jams, the second plunges into eerie, experimental exercises at the fringe of magnetic tape. This makes Tago Mago
a radical, groundbreaking album that doubles as a toe-tapping, bong-rattling good time.
Drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist/studio-boffin Michael Rother had played together in an early version of Kraftwerk, and fallen in love with how it felt playing those machine-like rhythms. So, they founded Neu!
, and set out authoring a 'new' music driven by simple, unfettered repetition. With Dinger driving the constant, unfettered 4/4 beat that would become his signature, the pair played long pieces that slowly increased intensity and tension. Like a car flickering along the broken lines of the highway, this 'motorik rhythm' has a sense of constant motion; of traveling forward. For, Neu! the destination was freedom itself. Their debut self-titled album proves to be a source of inspiration for subsequent generations seeking liberation.
6. Cluster 'Cluster II' (1972)
For many, ambient music conjures up notions of calm; be it in sweeping soundscapes or ersatz new-age floatation-tank muzak. Yet, the best ambient music —a sound which Berlin duo Cluster almost founded— isn't calming, but tense. Cluster boffins Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius authored rootless waves of eerie electronic sound, like a galaxy of UFO frequencies colliding in a mess of music minus meter, rhythm, harmony, or counterpoint. Unlike other krautrock bands, who definitely rocked, Cluster were at the fringes of pure formlessness; their circuit-frying, knob-twiddling, and sine-wave tweaking situated on the radical cutting edge. True pioneers, Cluster would have untold influence on future generations of abstract-electro nerds.
Popul Vuh's career was inextricably tied to that of genius filmmaker Werner Herzog, one of the brightest lights of Junger Deutscher Film, a concurrent cinematic movement whose designs on building a new German culture mirrored that of the krautrockers. Florian Fricke's project was perfectly suited to the realm of cinematic score because, unlike many of their rhythm-driven peers, they made eerie, floating, shape-shifting mood music. Mixing synth drones with North African percussion, Fricke created environmental paeans that liberated spiritualism from its liturgical past, celebrating a glorious, hippy-ish pantheism. In Den Gärten Pharaos
is split into two lengthy, loving workouts, in which the Popol Vuh sound is almost born before your eyes.
Where other bands plowed into visionary futurism, Ash Ra Tempel —essentially old school friends Manuel Göttsching and Hartmut Enke— were happy with the early-'70s, and, especially, its 'recreational' climate. Playing on a set of monster cabinets they bought second-hand from Pink Floyd, ART made utterly-stoned, cosmic, spaced-out psychedelia in which woodwinds and tuned percussion danced with frenetic drums and squalling, reverbed-out guitar leads. Their best record was their epic second set, Schwingungen, but its hallucinogenic workouts are often overshadowed by its more infamous follow-up, 1973's Seven-Up, in which they decamped with Dr. Timothy Leary(!) to Switzerland and recorded amidst plentiful acid trips and occasional orgies.
In 1973, Faust had gained a reputation as a 'difficult' band, thanks to both their pure-drone collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate
, and the infamous Faust Tapes
, a cut-and-paste collage of studio shards sold in the UK for 48 pence —the same price as a single— as a promotional introduction to English audiences. Yet, Faust's masterwork, Faust IV
, is anything but hard to love; beginning with the epic, immense, swelling, 12-minute "Krautrock," in which corrosive guitar, blips of synthesizer, spirals of organ, and skittering percussion slowly build up to celestial heights. The song didn't give the genre its name, as many mistakenly think; rather, Faust were laughing at what the British press were calling their music.
Harmonia marked a sort of krautrock 'supergroup,' even though neither Neu! or Cluster —from whose ranks the band sprang— were exactly superstars in their day. Matching Michael Rother's guitar deconstructions and electronic percussion with the synthesizer and electronic experiments of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius, Harmonia forged into the brave new world of ambient-rock, making a slobbering fanboy out of the so-called 'inventor' of ambient music, Brian Eno. Harmonia's debut LP is the audio equivalent of a mirage: a half-perceptible haze of glimmers and shimmers whose elusive, ephemeral quality stokes the fires of inspiration in an attentive listener. That, and it sometimes sounds like kitsch synth silliness.