Electronic music was still pretty new to the public consciousness in the early 1970s. After all, it was only a decade since “Love Me Do”. And it wouldn’t become mainstream for a little while longer – in fact, in 1974 TD’s Phaedra would be one of the first electronic albums to move any significant units. But in 1972 TD was still part of a hippie underground of mad experimenters operating in the burned-out shell of Imperial Deutschland. An emasculated people may have some issues to work through, as detailed in the BBC’s excellent documentary about German music of the period. It can’t have been fun being part of the new disenfranchised youth of a shamed nation, and it shows in the fundamental melancholy of the incredibly inventive, inspirational movement that came to be known oddly as “Krautrock”.
Tangerine Dream’s early work is all about “what can we do with these toys” – toys which were pretty clumsy at that time, mainly consisting of pushing the limits of early synths, organs, primitive effects and percussion. The 3-piece band’s previous effort, Alpha Centauri, was a decent listen but an unfocused mass of sounds that often didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. On Zeit, Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann (along with some help from Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh) evidently decided to go balls-out and make a masterpiece, which is precisely what they did.
Electronic and ambient music fans are now well familiar with the idea of the drone…heck, even some of the kids like it these days. But a double album slab of massive, outer-limits-of-the-cosmos scary droning was a pretty gutsy choice, even on the avant garde scene. And these cats pull it off with gusto. This album is an experience and a half.
It all starts with the frightening strings of the Cologne String Quartet on “Birth of Liquid Plejades”, which is soon joined by some slithery synthy sounds, eventually devolving into a mournful organ drone for the outro and some equally slithery glissando guitar. And it somehow magically keeps the attention of the adventurous listener for twenty minutes! This isn’t rock and roll or anything like it, being closer in spirit to the works of Ligeti than any progressive rock of the period.
“Nebulous Dawn” has an even more ominous feel and predicts the band’s more frenetic later sequencer-driven efforts with some shuddery treble rhythms echoing in the background. “Origin of Supernatural Probabilities” derives its mood from more gliding guitar and alien-sounding liquid pulsing. Just when you’re hoping (if you’re a wimp) for some lightness to round out side 4, the title track goes into full avant garde weirdness with a barrage of truly terrifying sounds worthy of being the soundtrack to Lovecraft’s evil universe.
So basically this isn’t light listening and perhaps not a great Krautrock gateway drug. However, if you are looking to find the real roots of the best modern electronic music and to go on a cosmic trip to a universe that might not be too friendly a place but is endlessly fascinating, this album is a must-listen. Later TD albums get lighter and rely too much on sequencers for my liking, but their entire discography from 1970 up to about 1977 is definitely worth picking up.