What’s to like?
A trip back to the dawn of Tangerine Dream, this box set collects the first four albums in replica gatefold sleeves, and offers an impressive upgrade in the sound quality, but little else.
The low down
The early seventies were a fertile period for progressively inclined musicians, with music being pushed into new frontiers, not just with new technology and production techniques, but with a mind-set about how that equipment could be used to create new sound.
The music scene in Berlin was no exception, with the development of “Krautrock”, or more respectfully, “Kosmische Musik”. This was a genre that drew on sources such as psychedelic rock, minimalism, the avant-garde, and electronically created music, blending it all in one melting pot and seeing what the results produced.
It was out of this scene that the fledgling Tangerine Dream was created by founder member Edgar Froese, a musician fascinated by technology and inspired to create his own custom-made instruments and merge the sounds with tape recordings and loops. It might sound primitive now but this was the beginning of sequencer technology which has now become the bedrock of electronic and dance music.
[Incidentally, the name Tangerine Dream was derived from the Beatles’ lyric “Tangerine trees and marmalade skies” from Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.]
Froese quickly entered into collaborations like-minded musicians, and within the space of four years created four remarkable albums, which are collectively known as “The Pink Years”. (A word play on the record label Ohr, which displayed a pink ear as its logo.)
A quick scan of the credits across these four albums reveals the wealth of creative talent with early contributions from the likes of Klaus Schulze, Florian Fricke (Popol Vuh), both of whom who went on to create their own impressive musical legacies, along with sound engineer Dieter Dierks (who later had success producing the Scorpions).
The debut album Electronic Meditation was released in 1970, and is very much a collection of improvised and spontaneous pieces, based around traditional instruments like guitars and drums, with the organ almost relegated to the background to provide ambience and atmosphere. The results are not so far removed from the sort of music that Pink Floyd was experimenting with on their Ummagumma album, but the arrangements are less structured and melodic.
Alpha Centauri, which followed in 1971, saw the arrival of Chris Franke, who would become part of the seminal line-up of TD, with the organ and embryonic synthesisers becoming more prominent in the sound. The arrangements sound a little more structured, but are still full of improvisation and experimentation, and this album might be considered a bridge between the original Kosmische Musik sound and the more ambient music that would follow.
Zeit, released in 1972, is considered to be an early peak in TD’s career, and is very popular among fans, none more so than Steven Wilson, who cites it as one of his favourites. By this time Peter Baumann had joined the line-up, defining the core trio that would go on to create some of TD’s best albums during their tenure on the Virgin label.
Zeit is very much the definition of “cosmic music”, spread across four lengthy pieces, each running for around 20 minutes. It feels like a lot to absorb, but in fact as soon as the opening cello notes strike up, the listener is drawn into a zone where time becomes meaningless and motionless. The emphasis is on atmosphere and ambience, with little or no rhythm, and no discernible melody, and yet it’s an incredibly absorbing listening experience. Crudely put, it’s like experiencing a space odyssey in your own mind.
The album that followed, Atem, often feels sidelined by comparison, as the music moved towards more recognisable melodies and sequenced patterns. However, for me it’s as rewarding as the previous albums, as it shows the band continuing to progress and redefine their sound. The spacey “out there” feel of Zeit is still present, but you can feel the sound moving closer to the tempos and rhythmic oscillations that would define the following year’s landmark album Phaedra – their first for the Virgin label, and the beginning of a golden period for the trio’s creativity.
The Pink Years set has been exhaustively issued and reissued over the years, but the current record label Esoteric has seen fit to reissue the set again, in a clamshell box with LP style replica cardboard covers for each cd. In terms of packaging it’s disappointingly bare-bones, with no inner sleeves or liner notes, and merely a fold-out poster.
If you want to learn more about the recording processes and the band’s thoughts at the time, you’ll have to refer to the detailed notes in the previous 2011 editions.
The same goes for bonus material. The 2018 versions only contain the basic tracks, as they would have been originally released. Again, this may be frustrating for collectors, because the 2011 editions came with excellent bonus material, including previously unreleased concert performances.
I went back and sat through the Klangwald set from 1972 (bonus disc with Zeit), and the The Deutschlandhalle Concert from 1973 (bonus disc with Atem), and in my view these are essential additions to the TD evolution, containing music not available on any other official album, and showing how the band developed the sound, as live performance, for each studio album that would follow.
So again, if you have the 2011 versions, you’re going to want to hang on to these. [Please note that this also means that the Ultima Thule single is missing from this reissue of Alpha Centauri.]
But…..the one redeeming feature of the 2018 set, and it’s a biggie, is the remastered sound. The albums have been given a noticeable sonic upgrade from the 2011 editions, and do sound better. I’d previously found the 2011 editions to sound a bit harsh and fatiguing on the ears, but accepted this as a limitation of the original sound tapes.
But these 2018 editions are much more natural and warm sounding. The volume is quieter which means that the original tape hiss is not as oppressive – it’s still there, but it feels more a part of the overall listening experience. The stereo effects sound less forced too, with the panning from speaker to speaker much smoother and more of a natural consequence.
So who is this set going to appeal to?
For beginners, if you don’t have the albums already, and are curious about Tangerine Dream’s early years, then this is an affordable way to discover them.
For the collectors it’s more of a dilemma – is the remastered sound a big enough draw to double dip for a second set, because there’s nothing else of note? I guess it depends on how much time you spend with these four albums. If they are regular and essential listening then the improved sound is going to add to your listening pleasure, but if like me, they’re more of a stepping stone into the Virgin years, then perhaps you’re best to save your cash.
Not least because it’s now common knowledge that Steven Wilson has prepared remixes of the Virgin label albums, and an extensive box set is imminent in Spring 2019.
Which may be why Esoteric have gone for a pre-emptive strike with this box set, to tempt the wallets of collectors before the Virgin set is released and takes the rest of our cash!