The Cluster Effect
A Krautrock Legend Lands in a Baltimore Warehouse
For a city that is still passed over by touring musicians in favor of neighboring Washington and Philadelphia, Baltimore has pulled off quite a coup. In one of only two East Coast appearances, seminal Krautrock band Cluster performs at the Floristree warehouse venue this Sunday, May 18. It's a rare opportunity for American fans to see one of the earliest originators of ambient music--Cluster has only toured America once before, in 1996. The current reunion tour boasts a mere eight U.S. performances--two on the East Coast--and, initially, Baltimore was not on the itinerary.
Sunday's concert, which blossomed into a 12-act festival, arose from a fanboy "wouldn't it be cool if" daydream stoked by Cluster's upcoming performance at this weekend's noise-celebrating No Fun Fest in New York. While some fans would have been content to make the trek up north, Jason Urick and Matt Papich decided to bring Cluster to their own home after discovering the band shared a booking agent with their friends in Food for Animals, a local hip-hop trio.
Though the two Floristree residents have put on big shows in the past--Urick co-founded the now-defunct experimental electronic music festival Once.Twice.Sound and Papich co-heads Wildfire Wildfire Productions, which co-organized much of last year's Whartscape--initially they did not plan on organizing a festival. But after realizing they could only get Cluster to play on a Sunday, they expanded the show into an all-day event.
"We want to highlight Cluster's influence on modern psych and ambient music," Urick says during a phone interview. "Maybe not every artist [playing the festival] would claim to be a huge Cluster fan, but their influence has permeated into so many facets of modern-day music."
This influence is evident in the festival's diverse lineup. Among the performers are minimalist composer Keith Fullerton Whitman, rootsy psych musicians Daniel Higgs and Susan Alcorn, and solo outings from notable noise musicians Eric Copeland of Black Dice and Mouthus side project Afternoon Penis.
Though less well-known than fellow Krautrock groups like Kraftwerk, Can, or Faust, Cluster has had a far-reaching influence on progressive rock and electronic music, garnering big-name fans such as David Bowie and Brian Eno, the latter of whom the group collaborated with during the '70s. In contemporary times, you can hear echoes of Cluster's warm, spacey soundscapes in the works of prog-rock bands like Tortoise as well as electronic composers such as Fennesz and Loscil.
Cluster has its origins in the Zodiak Free Art Lab, a Berlin-based radical arts and music collective founded in the late 1960s by Cluster member Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler. Soon after establishing the Art Lab, Schnitzler, an early member of the band, recruited Dieter Moebius, then an art student moonlighting as a restaurant cook. Originally called Kluster, the group was an avant-garde improvisational affair, incorporating a number of makeshift instruments--from alarm clocks to kitchen utensils--into its music. During Kluster's brief incarnation, between 1969 and 1971, the group released three albums in small runs.
After Schnitzler's departure to pursue a solo career, Moebius and Roedelius changed the group's name to Cluster while retaining their hallmark penchant for ambient-electro improvisation. The duo recruited famed producer/musician Konrad "Conny" Plank for work on their self-titled major-label debut (later reissued as Cluster '71). Plank, who also released three albums of more dance-oriented electronic music with Moebius as the pragmatically named Moebius and Plank, was the go-to producer in the Krautrock scene. Among the groups he worked with are fellow Germans Kraftwerk and Neu! as well as international heavies like U2 and the Talking Heads.
The 1970s were Cluster's most fertile period with the group releasing seven albums and founding a communal, private studio in the rural village of Forst, West Germany. At Forst, visiting musicians lived with the band, including Brian Eno and Michael Rother of Neu!, the latter having formed Krautrock supergroup Harmonia with Moebius and Roedelius. The trio released two albums, Musik Von Harmonia and Deluxe, that deftly meshed Cluster's more minimal, introspective sound with Rother's pronounced pop-rock leanings.
While Rother was off touring with Neu! in 1977, Moebius and Roedelius continued their work with Eno, recording the albums Cluster and Eno and After the Heat. Eno's enthusiastic association with Moebius and Roedelius brought them international recognition. Throughout the late '70s, Cluster toured and released several albums, until taking an eight-year hiatus starting in 1981.
During the interim Moebius continued working with Plank, until the latter's death in 1987. Meanwhile, Roedelius released a number of ambient solo projects. In 1991, Cluster released its first album in a decade, Apropos Cluster. This comeback coincided with the '90s resurgence of interest in German prog rock, thanks in part to books such as Julian Cope's 1995 Krautrocksampler. During the revival, significant portions of the Cluster back catalog were reissued in the United States. Capitalizing on this attention, Cluster embarked on its first ever tours to America and Japan, in 1996, both of which spawned live albums.
As of last year, Cluster is enjoying yet another revival, playing a handful of shows throughout Europe. Coinciding with its current U.S. tour is the release of recently unearthed early Kluster material and Berlin 2007, a new live album. Harmonia, too, has reunited. In November 2007, the group performed in Berlin for the first time in more than 30 years. Currently, American fans only have one chance to get their Harmonia fix--at September's high-profile, My Bloody Valentine-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Monticello, N.Y.--that is, if Floristree doesn't work some of that booking mojo again.
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