Hindsight is generally a wonderful yet completely pointless thought process that only human’s use. In many ways it is useless, as if events had changed, likely our world and landscape would have done too, which would also serve to conveniently invalidate the need for the existence of hindsight. In some ways though it’s just another amusing distraction, a form of escapism, and really speaking, it is in our nature of conscious thought to ponder the most ridiculously trivial what ifs.
Supposing hindsight was an accepted talking point, we can ask ourselves what if Germany had not produced the many fine bands it did in the 1970’s? Neu!, Kraftwerk, Faust, Harmonia and Popul Vuh are just some of these, but one of the most overlooked and utterly influential of all was Cluster. A band consisting of just two musicians, both of whom looked the antithesis of all that was experimental, cool and edgy about music in the seventies, yet nonetheless managing to be all of those, and much, much more.
Cluster did for ambient electronic music what Silver Apples did for synthesizer pop music, what Suicide did for electroclash, and what Kraftwerk happily did for...Well, just about everything else in the genre. There’s a simpler lesson to be learnt from Cluster’s tale though. They weren’t conscious innovators, aggravators or experimenters. To them their music was as pure an expression in pop music terms of their location, as the Beatles did in the sixties. Their music evokes a time, place and reason for being there, unlike the other self-aware avant-garde pioneers, Cluster were simply two men who had a passion for Electronic gadgetry, and loved writing music with it.
Zuckerzeit is the fourth album as the renamed Cluster, having dropped the K three years earlier. With this subtle change of name came a more than subtle shift in sound, from the charming ambient soundscapes of Zwei Osterei was born a new more intriguing style, one that bubbled with ideas and electronic manipulation on a scale not seen since Silver Apples.
The album opens with Hollywood, an instrumental track (like everything on the album) that says considerably more than a track with words could have done. Bright, sparkling pictures are painted as waves of gloriously chunky synthesizers wash over an unsure puttering electronic beat, a style that pertains for the next track, Caramel. This track is so smothered in chunky reverberated keyboards, and more jerky but sensible drumbeats that it could be mistaken for being a longer, more enunciated track that includes Hollywood, but straight away the feel is different, Hollywood harbours a more morose, reflective tone, whereas Caramel is playful, light and so ridiculously self-conscious it’s fascinating.
Next track, Rote Riki is probably the most experimental track on the album, opening with what, on first listen sounds identical to a high pitched squealing transmission signal, which is immediately answered by a vocal weaving synth that serves to sound like an alien answering the call from his distant home planet. The rest of the track is content on building on this atmosphere, with a throbbing bass that sounds like a spaceship landing, and a spooky lead part that evokes the sense of a planet turning steadily on its axis.
Rosa, Caramba, Fotschi Tong, James and Marzipan follow up next, and these really are the truly ‘German’ tracks on the album. Spaced out, sprawling and experimental tracks that build on the already heavily implied motif of outer space. The album never gets too ahead of itself or pretentious, every note feeling as relaxed and unforced as the last. Rosa, Fotschi Tong and Marzipan especially conjure up images of ambience that only seem to have been taken up by Richard D. James on his first ambient album, each featuring the now recognizably awkward drumbeats, gloriously colourful synthesizer, and good humour of Cluster. Caramba and James are the more experimental of the five tracks, digging deep into their own imaginations Cluster manage to offer up a concise, jerky and repetitive tune on the former, and actually pull out their guitars for James, which makes for an interesting and welcome change from all this damned future business.
The album finishes on a short, precise note. Rotor and Heiße Lippen wrap up proceedings, each being well under three minutes in length. They kick up the pace a bit and see Cluster running imaginary hurdles in space whilst juggling in Rotor, and entering Neu! (pun well and truly intended!) territory with the latter, droning and wonderfully motorik beats complimenting the feel of space throughout.
At under fourty minutes, Zuckerzeit says and does a lot more than albums of this length tend to. It’s probably due to the fact that throughout the band never once dwells on a single idea, if only to create a mood. Each new track brings with it new possibilities, and it is quite conceivable that on any given day a different song could be a favourite off of it. The great thing about Cluster is their personas as gentle, soft spoken country boys, who when let loose on synthesizers and drum machines, tended to break absolutely every rule ever set by music and man. So...Where did electronic music go to after this landmark release? Well, it only waited till Cluster released their next album, Sowiesoso, which picked up the pace left by this gem of seventies German music.