|Next to Ralf and Florian, the biggest pair of names in German electronic music might be Moebius and Roedelius, the brains behind CLUSTER (or KLUSTER, as they were called back when ex-Tangerine Dreamer CONRAD SCHNITZLER was in the group). Both teams grew from the same fertile incubator of late 1960s/early 1970s Krautrock, but unlike the robot-pop stars of KRAFTWERK the two Berliners stayed true to their counterculture roots, content to earn their stripes quietly somewhere on the outer fringes of sonic experimentation.
A subsequent joint endeavor with BRIAN ENO would belatedly fix the gold seal of avant-garde approval to their already sterling credentials, but this 1974 album was where CLUSTER found its true voice. The session was co-produced by MICHAEL ROTHER (joining the pair that same year in their side project HARMONIA), and the melodic instincts of the angelic ex-NEU! guitarist must have had a mellowing influence on the band, easing their transition from primitive noise merchants to prestigious ambient forefathers.
The big difference between the aptly titled "Zuckerzeit" (rough translation: "Sugartime") and the more difficult early KLUSTER recordings is how easily the newer album struck a perfect balance between two contrasting but complimentary talents. Hans-Joachim Roedelius was a modest ivory tickler with a flair for muted, minimalist electric piano arpeggios (a style he would later refine in countless, near-identical solo albums of simple, subtle nursery school tone poems). And Dieter Moebius was the hardcore knob twiddler responsible for that dirty, homegrown drum machine sound, like his occasional electric guitar used more for texture than actual rhythm.
Together they were adept at molding and massaging what might have been a series of strictly academic doodles into unexpected shapes and patterns. But unlike the electronic meditations of other German synth pioneers (I’m thinking of TANGERINE DREAM, naturally), CLUSTER added a measure of typically dry Teutonic wit to their music: check out the back cover photo here, with the two posing like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Or try a bite of "Caramel", the obvious highlight of the album, and the closest thing here to a genuine mainstream pop sound (as heard on the planet Mars, at any rate). The track is built entirely around a simple four-note synthesizer pattern, programmed in an up-tempo, toe-tapping 4/4 beat, and like all the best Krautrock it’s almost absurdly repetitive and oddly compelling, suggesting a Third Reich and Roll RESIDENTS cover of Depeche Mode or (remember them?) the Silicon Teens.
The sugarcoated "Caramel" then dissolves into the throbbing drones and warped mechanical dreamscape of "Rote Riki", an embryonic foreshadow of the (highly recommended) 1979 Moebius and Conny Plank collaboration "Rastakraut Pasta", driven here by an uncertain but insistent rhythm sounding not unlike a dripping faucet at 2 a.m.
The remainder of the album alternates between gentle, more accessible Roedelius ditties and weirder Moebius detours (I don’t know if Moebius is his real name, but it fits). Add them all together and the result is a minor milestone of electronic ingenuity, and a springboard to a larger family tree of challenging music, all of it linked by six degrees of kosmische separation. From the roots of KRAFTWERK and TANGERINE DREAM (and of course the Krautrock demigods of CAN) you can climb to just about every important German band of the era, and more than a few branches will eventually lead you back to CLUSTER.