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I had previously thought that the 80s was a bleak time for prog, but a conversation in my local retro-homeware, fashion and vinyl shop made me think again. I didn't embrace neo-prog at the time, though I did dabble. A reappraisal of the importance of that music, starting about 10 years ago, together with the discovery of a range of Italian neo-prog bands, has made me change my mind. About time, too...

Dreams wide awake

By ProgBlog, May 8 2018 10:01PM

Until last month, I’d never been to see a Tangerine Dream performance; the closest I’d ever come to witnessing the TD sound was seeing ‘Berlin school’ devotees Node at the Royal College of Music in 2015 (a performance that is just about to be released on CD), and I was also present at the rather intimate premiere of the Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream film Revolution in Sound, part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival, screened at the Barbican Centre last November.


My appreciation of Tangerine Dream spans back to being introduced to Phaedra (1974) by school friend Alan Lee and I bought 1975’s Rubycon shortly after its release based on the promise of its predecessor. I can’t remember where I first heard Ricochet which was largely recorded at a gig in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls on 23rd October 1975 but I remember not being over-impressed with the next studio release Stratosfear (1976), which I thought made too many concessions towards mainstream rock, including the use of harmonica. I imagine it was becoming ever more difficult to maintain originality and find new things to write in the idiom they’d created but I also think the change in use of the sequencer from pulsed rhythmic intervention to near-rigid substitute electronic drumming had the overall effect of making the group more industry-friendly. I sold my copy of Rubycon some time before I left school in 1978 but regretted it, believing that it remains one of the ultimate albums to listen to in the dark through headphones. I bought a compilation CD From Dawn ‘til Dusk 1973 - 1988 in the early 90s, a CD of Phaedra in 2005 and replaced my Rubycon on CD in 2009 and finally replaced both Phaedra and Rubycon CDs with original vinyl last year; over the last couple of years I’ve bought a second-hand vinyl copy of Ricochet, plus Stratosfear and soundtrack Sorcerer (1977) on CD and I inherited CDs to plug the gap from Encore (1977) to Hyperborea (1983) from friend Neil Jellis as he replaced his original CDs with remasters.



Their brand of electronica was swiftly accepted by the fans of British progressive rock, like myself, who were exposed to the band when Richard Branson signed them to Virgin Records. Though not virtuoso, the application of electronic keyboard-based instrumentation to the thinking of minimalist composers like György Ligeti put them at the forefront of a radical musical movement, with atmospheres created by sonic washes, sequencer pulses and haunting Mellotron, mapping both outer- and inner space.

My favourite line-up is the classic Froese-Franke-Baumann trio, responsible for the early-mid 70’s classics, and who performed in some unusual places for a rock band, like the cathedrals at Reims in France, Liverpool and Coventry. The latter two are modern architectural masterpieces but Reims Cathedral (Notre Dame de Reims) is an 81m high gothic building dating from 1211, lacking in facilities for a crowd of rock fans whose behaviour would lead to TD being banned from ever playing in a Catholic church again. The idea to perform electronic meditations in these sacred places, whether or not you hold religious beliefs, was a stroke of genius because as a layperson with an appreciation of architecture, I find this thoughtful, sometimes reflective and often searching music is somehow very fitting for the space.


The journey from Brescia to the gig at the Union Chapel, Islington, was dictated by the easyJet flight schedule from Verona to Gatwick which fortunately ran on time. There were no disasters at Gatwick’s railway station, or East Croydon or Victoria and I arrived at the venue to join the end of what was one of the biggest queues I’ve seen for a long time (that being for Steven Wilson at The Troxy in March 2015). This queue also contained Neil, who happened to be holding my ticket, and who fortuitously called me before he’d reached the entrance and disappeared inside. The one slight drawback with this rush was the rather stark temperature difference between Italy and the UK; it had been 26oC when I boarded my flight but the evening temperature in London was 14oC. I was wearing a T shirt and had no jacket.


The performances at the Union Chapel invited comparisons with the Reims show, and Bianca Froese-Acquaye suggested, as she introduced the evening’s proceedings, that Edgar would have approved of the setting. I get the feeling that many of the fans did, too, certainly on the night I attended, Monday 23rd April. Froese-Acquaye had been present at the screening of the documentary at the Barbican, where she read an extract about meeting Jimi Hendrix from her husband’s autobiography, Tangerine Dream: Force Majeure which had been published a couple of months before, and held a Q&A session following the film. She had obviously been given instructions that the group should carry on following Edgar’s ‘change of cosmic address’ and the trio with the responsibility for the musical legacy, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, proved well qualified to do so, building on the critical acclaim of Quantum Gate (2017). I was a little concerned about the way Edgar Froese was addressed by his widow as she dedicated the performance to ‘our master’; this may have been accidental miscommunication but it did come across as though we were being initiated into some form of cult, with Quaeschning named as Froese’s ‘chosen successor’.



The set list seems to have been comprised mostly from 80’s material, plus a couple of tracks from Quantum Gate: It is Time to Leave When Everyone is Dancing and Roll the Seven Twice, compositions I really wasn’t familiar with but thoroughly enjoyed because it sounded as though each piece had the right balance of instrumentation despite the reliance on midi-triggers and programming; during the mid 80s Froese reworked some of their tracks and added new layers of keyboard, guitar and rhythm, a move regarded by many as detracting from the stark elegance of the originals. One of the songs in the first set reminded me of Phaedra and I wonder if it was part of the 2005 reworking of that album, which featured Quaeschning, especially as a little research suggests that the selection includes more recent, post-Froese reworkings. The second set was more reminiscent of 70’s TD; not only did they play Stratosfear but they also performed an extended improvisation, a Session in TD parlance, like one of the improvised pieces that made up their seminal live albums.



I had thought that the enigmatic Yamane was responsible for very little of the soundscape, as there were lengthy sections where her violin was held by her side, but I’m reliably informed she was responsible for triggering and controlling effects using Ableton Push. There were a few moments where the electronic drums became a little cheesy but the sequencer-driven beats, a trademark of the Berlin School acts, were always imaginative. Some of the projections appeared a little dated, too, though most seemed apt, fitting in with the music and making it difficult to work out whether to watch the band or to watch the lights play over the neo-gothic interior of the chapel. On balance I was probably more impressed with the second set; especially the improvised piece which shifted in unpredictable ways and where the involvement of the whole trio was much more evident.



The whole event was really enjoyable, from the setting to the playing to the music itself. It didn’t matter that my preferred era of the band was one where there was less reliance on continuous sequences and the evolution of the tracks seemed more organic and free-form; I love Froese’s Mellotron work, rating both Aqua (1974) and Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975) as Mellotron classics but their adoption and employment of digital technology can’t be faulted, creating multiple layers of sound of uncertain origin that weaved and flowed over the crowd seated on the chapel’s pews. Like Froese before him, Quaeschning picked up a guitar during a couple of pieces but I wasn’t able to attribute a particular sound to the instrument; perhaps everything will become clear when the DVD is released because the entire performance was filmed.



...It was well worth the dash from Brescia to Islington.








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