Dieter Moebius mixtape: A sonic appreciation of the late synth master
The work that the German electronic music experimentalist Dieter Moebius crafted as part of the duo Cluster starting in the early 1970s had little precedent. Moebius, who died this week at age 71, helped construct richly emotive ambient tracks and early beat-based works that helped set the tones of emerging electronic music.
Through his work with Hans-Joachim Roedelius in Cluster (originally Kluster), with instrumental electronics group Harmonia (Roedelius and Neu! member Michael Rother), in partnership with Brian Eno or on many solo and collaborative works, Moebius helped forge the sound of European electronics during a particularly fruitful period in Germany.
He did so alongside better-known innovators including Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, harnessing electricity and circuitry to create frequencies with overwhelming warmth and depth.
Early work with Harmonia predicted synth pop and loop-based sample culture. Mid-period explorations with collaborators including Conny Plank, Asmus Tietchens and Michael Rother visited realms that broke free both aurally and structurally and still sound modern.
That Moebius’ death received only passing attention in America suggests that at least a few would-be fans need a nudge. Many of his recordings are available on streaming services and still more are on YouTube. But a host of them are either buried or don’t always surface in simple searches. Below are some Moebius works to explore, along with a Spotify playlist that, played with ample volume and focus, reveals future-world ideas that decades later sound wildly contemporary.
Harmonia, “Music von Harmonia” (1974). A striking instrumental album whose eight songs predicted Kraftwerk’s eventual turn toward synth pop a few years later, the first record from Harmonia is one of the most important loop-based works of the 1970s.
Where many electronic creators were looking to convey human emotion through circuitry, “Music von Harmonia” revels in layers of mechanized repetition. Opening track “Watussi” swirls with circular melodies and oblong time signatures. The guitar and synth work “Ahoi!” floats with ambient, beatless texture before slipping into mesmerizing maze of gentle reverb. Collectors should know that Harmonia’s entire oeuvre is being reissued as “Complete Works” on vinyl in October -- good news considering that original pressings of the first record run $100 or more.
Cluster & Brian Eno, “Cluster and Eno” (1977). This beautiful record teams artist-producer Eno with Moebius and Roedelius and was produced by secret weapon Plank. Recorded in the period when Eno was working in Berlin on projects with rockers David Bowie and Iggy Pop while simultaneously exploring defiantly non-rock ambient music, “Cluster & Eno” exists somewhere in between. Pensive and meditative but never boring, its nine songs inhabit rooms as though they’re silent sculptures woven using sound waves.
Moebius & Plank, “En Route.” Producer Plank is legendary among fans of German electronic music. With credits on projects as varied as Kraftwerk, Echo & the Bunnymen, Devo, Guru Guru and Eurythmics, Plank collaborated with Moebius for decades. This unsung instrumental recording rolls as if fueled by jet engines. “The Truth?” sounds like Kraftwerk on steroids, and opening track “Automatic” hums with “Bladerunner”-style neon energy.
Moebius, Plank, Neumeier, “Zero Set” (1983). Issued as synthesizer technology was progressing at astounding rates, “Zero Set’s” star is former Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier. Beefy with distortion and uptempo rhythms, “Zero Set” is rarely mentioned as an influence on house and techno, and who knows whether it actually was. But 30 years later you can hear a beat-heavy energy ripe for rave culture. “Pitch Control” sounds like an early Aphex Twin track, and buzzes with proto-Skrillex chaos.
Cluster, “Qua” (2009). A vivid record rich with android melodies and analog and digital synthethetics, “Qua” was recorded when both Moebius and Roedelius were veterans, when any kid with a laptop and some software could crank out a track using as much processing power than likely existed in all of Berlin in the 1970s. With fewer tech-hurdles, the team moved further toward the abstract. “Gissander” is particularly freakish, moaning and groaning like some computerized beast. Throughout “Qua” such utterances wash in and out. Who says musicians get soft with age?
Want to hear more: Here’s a Spotify “Moebius Mix” that celebrates a true original.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit
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