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Tangerine Doom?

Tangerine Dream

I first got into Tangerine Dream, I suppose, in 1971/2, when I picked up their second album, Alpha Centauri. I was most impressed, and proceeded to buy up all the later albums on import as they emerged. I heard the band move on to better and better things. Eventually Virgin grabbed the band in early '74 and released Phaedra in February of that year. It is still one of my all-time favourite albums. The thing I have always remembered Tangerine Dream for is the atmospheric, sequence-based improvisation and general 'feel' of this album. Who says that electronic music can't have feel? In late '74 I got to see the band live at the Rainbow in London and — musically — was most impressed. The videosynth got a bit boring, and there was not the slightest hint of 'stage presence' — they just sat there, backs to the audience, I seem to remember — but the music came out all right, and what was going down on stage didn't matter.

Then came another album, Rubycon. It may have sold better, but I didn't like it as much. Maybe the band were worried about stagnating too — the album was the same kind of thing as Phaedra, but to my mind lacked a few good ideas. After that they just seem to have gone down hill. Ricochet was very good, but the studio albums seemed to have lost that atmospheric subtlety. They became rather more harsh and, to me, rather less interesting. Perhaps it was the evil influence of Exorcist director William Friedkin (and films like that the world can well do without) — I don't know. All I know is that I heard the new album Cyclone the other day and saw the 'Tangs' (sic) at the Hammersmith Odeon on March 20, and I didn't like what I heard. I won't discuss the album, because it deserves a more detailed appreciation, but concerts are a one-off job, so I'll just look at that.

The concert consisted of two hour-long pieces separated by an interval, followed by a couple of encores. The band was very well received, and I have no doubt that this was due primarily to their heavy swing to the 'right', into mainstream rock. There was no doubt about it. The most noticeable thing was the drumming. Klaus Krieger is definitely very good, and having to sync in with a rhythm track (in this case, Chris Franke's synthesiser sequences) is always a bastard. Through all the confusion and general racket, Klaus and Chris were always in perfect time. One could criticise the drumming as being very basic, peppered with the odd fill, but what can you do if you're having to play against a sequence consisting primarily of four equal beats? If it's just sitting there going BonkDing Ding, BonkDingDingDing... for some time what else can you do? In many ways, a straight drummer in the midst of the synths seemed a little incongruous; although the idea of acoustic drums worked on some of the straighter rock sections, other parts really didn't need them, and the overall impression was one of boredom.

Whilst on the subject of sequences, I seemed to notice that almost the entire sequence output was being generated by Chris Franke's bank of synths. Edgar Froese spent most of the time playing lead lines, yet behind him was a massive multi-section sequencer which was apparently just there for the effect: lights flashed all over the panel in red and white but none of them had any time-relation to the rhythm in progress. I bet that ne'er a sound emerged, which is a pity. "If you don't need it, don't bring it," is my opinion.

Over this solid, if uninteresting, rhythm backing, Edgar Froese and Steve Jolliffe played a varied series of improvisations on several instruments, notably synths, Mellotron and guitar from Edgar, and vocals, flute and saxophones from Steve. Much of this was disappointing. I could really have done without Froese's fuzz guitar solos; although the occasional phaser he employed produced a very nice sound, the playing left a lot to be desired. It just wasn't anything really. But what can you play around a single chord? Jolliffe played very well, but suffered the same problem: lack of room for any sort of melodic expression. The rhythm-pattern was so tight that it restricted any form of movement; very often it would be several minutes between anything even resembling a chord-change. If the intention had been to make subtle adjustments to the structure, a la Terry Riley, I would not have minded. If we were merely to be hypnotised by deliberate repetition, I would not have complained. But the former was not the case, because nothing really ever happened, and the latter was impossible because of screaming solos which removed any possibility of sleep (although a friend, also an avid Phaedra-period Tang-watcher managed to drop off for about five minutes at one point). Jolliffe's vocals, though, really put me off. I know about the use of vocals as sounds rather than songs or any of that conventional stuff, but this wasn't really sound at all — just screaming noise. It made me think I'd heard all this before... insistent drumming, improvisation, words repeated here and there... yes! I suddenly thought of my first Hawkwind gig at the Roundhouse many moons ago. I liked them then (and have done until very recently, and even that is more my fault than theirs), and they were certainly right for the time. Yet here, at the Hammersmith Odeon, was a concert that was ten years too late, made all the sadder by being the current output of a once-innovative band, now slipping backwards into the mainstream, and, for them, into the past. I have the greatest respect for Tangerine Dream and their motives for the current change, and I don't deny that a change was in order. But I really would like them to think again.

The show was considerably brightened by the Laserium show — in fact, if anything, the light was a bit too bright, and occasionally dazzling, due mainly to the short throw on to the screen from the lasers themselves, which also physically limited this part of their show. More impressive were the blue-green pillars of light which shot up from the stage in the second half and sparkled in billowing smoke, and the beams which emerged from two spheres on poles and swept round the hall, modulated sometimes by the PA sound and sometimes by oscillators producing Lissajous patterns.

The sound in general was fairly good; the Odeon is a nasty place acoustically, and the whole system appeared to resonate disturbingly at about 300Hz, and later, during a solo piano section by Jolliffe, fed back at about 2K, making some notes disproportionately loud. Apart from that, the PA performed quite well (apart from a lack of low bass), except at the end of a couple of numbers where the band obviously got stuck in the 'Beethoven situation' ('Oh God, how do we get out of this?!') and just finished with a chaotic noise. Mixing was, in general, fine, apart from the feeling that Edgar Froese's lead lines were almost always too loud, particularly at the end where Jolliffe and Froese were both soloing away vigorously and you could hardly hear Steve at all because of Edgar playing over-loud. I would have preferred a more even balance.

Only one thing bothers me, and you can make of it what you will. Despite all I have said, the audience — a full house — loved it, and got two encores. So maybe they're right and I'm wrong. Who knows?

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Soft Machine

Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


Sound International - May 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Sound Reports & Views

Music Review by Richard Elen

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