By Nathan Pavolko
In the early 1970’s, music was going through multiple transformations all at once due to the state of the world. The U.S was broken due to the Vietnam conflict, an unofficial civil war over opposing views. Some artists tried to soften the blow with the more orchestrated soft rock, while many gravitated to the more abrasive hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, rebelling against the social normalities forced upon them. During this time, Germany was going through many of the same issues but on a much deeper level. Literally divided by the aftermath of World War II, the country was shattered, separated into East and West Germany. German music, on the other hand, was brewing something much different than blues-based rock. The creation of electronic synthesizers sparked a huge experimental movement, starting the genre of Krautrock and the earliest of noise music. Germany was rebuilding from the ground up and so naturally a new way of thinking was implemented into every corner, including music.
Krautrock was so wildly different and unknown to society at the time that people didn’t know how to react, not even considering it to be music. However, many Krautrock bands were actually far ahead of their time paving the way for the explosion of 80’s pop music in the United States and onto indie bands today. Bands such as NEU!, Can, Cluster, and the most widely known Kraftwerk pushed the boundaries of music toward an industrial evolution. In 1973, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster and Michael Rother of NEU! joined together to create the Krautrock super-group Harmonia. Releasing three albums and one live album throughout their career, covering multiple styles of music, ranging from ambient swells of synth and motorik drum beats to a more pop oriented early indie rock. The band’s talent and avant-garde approach caught the attention of many illustrious rock stars such as Brian Eno, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. Now Gronland Records releases a vinyl box set of their entire discography including a previously unreleased album, all comprised under the name Harmonia’s Complete Works. Dieter Moebius co-founder of both Cluster and Harmonia played a major role in the construction of the box set collection, working closely with Gronland Records, despite his illness. I am sad to say Moebius recently passed away before the box set’s release, but his loving memory lives on in this wonderful collection.
Harmonia’s first record Musik Von Harmonia encompasses the works of both origin bands into one masterful abstract art piece. All at once playful and murky, pulsating heart rhythms yet completely mechanical, the band achieves new ways of embracing humanity and technology as a singular entity, a captivating ambiance that pleases a careful listener but also fills a room with a variety of atmospheres. The members of Cluster have a heavy influence on this record, with their dark entrancing noise psychedelia. However the bubbly melodies of NEU! are what shine through creating a focal point to grasp onto. This combination makes such a perfect and razor thin balance of pop and ambient music which is undoubtedly how they became so well renowned. The album starts off with the incredibly catchy upbeat track “Watussi”, sounding similar to something out of a dance club in Blade Runner. Yet the second track “Sehr Kosmisch" takes a closer look into the calm pulsing tide of space.
Upon Musik Von Harmonia’s initial release it was a sleeper hit, the public more interested in pop oriented Krautrock, the band took a short break to record new albums with their origin bands Cluster and NEU!. Yet the time spent on Harmonia had changed their perspectives on each others’ song writing and musical approach. On Cluster’s Zuckerzeit, Rother’s influence can be heard with its much more defined melody and rhythmic style, sounding different from any other Cluster album. After their time apart Harmonia went back into their secluded studio in Forst with fresh and interesting ideas. Inviting the help of producer Conny Plank (NEU!, Can, Guru Guru) to record the band’s second record Deluxe. The most notable change is the addition of vocal melodies, straying away from the strictly instrumental debut album. Deluxe is a surprisingly cheerful album considering the members backgrounds. The opener and title track “Deluxe” starts with a bright arpeggiating synth and a repetitive yet catchy vocal melody. As the song progresses it transforms into a beautiful trade off of melodies between guitar and synth, exacting an early form of indie rock. The production of Deluxe has great depth to it, a certain psychedelic saturation similar to a late Pink Floyd record. This is best heard on their swirling cacophony “Walky Talky” as displaced guitar riffs are played over top a bouncing tribal drum beat creating a tension filled jam.
After the commercial success of Deluxe and extensive touring, in 1976, the trio decided to end their collaboration to start individual solo projects. However, later that year the group reunited to record their long lost third album Tracks And Traces with Brian Eno, who was en route to Montreux to work on David Bowie’s album Low. The third album was recorded in 1976 but was not released until 1997. The time spent on the record would go on to influence Eno later in his career on the Apollo LP. Various websites quote him saying that Harmonia was “the world’s most important rock band” in the mid 70’s. With Eno’s musical mindset, he turned out to be a wonderful addition to Harmonia, complimenting the already swelling saturation of the trio with lyrics as well as perfectly placed atonal bass lines, best heard in the deep bellow of “Weird Dream” as a sci-fi or horror movie synth wavers in the background. Tracks And Traces harkens back to Harmonia’s debut, more atmospheric than pop oriented, with a dense coat of gloss that's thick as molasses.
Since then, Harmonia has reunited several times over the years first in 2007 following the release of their album Live 1974, from the recordings of their concert at Penny Station Club in Griessem, Germany. This would mark the first time the trio had performed live since 1976, inspiring the band to play more shows in the following two years. Playing their first show in the UK on the opening night of the Ether Festival during 2008 and also playing an edition of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, curated by My Bloody Valentine in New York later that year.
Included in the box set is also a previously unreleased album made of two live recordings from Hamburg gigs as well as two studio tracks from their peaceful home in Forst. There is also a 36-page booklet containing the history of the band as well as unreleased photos, and as an added bonus some pop-up art of their recording home. Harmonia is a band that were years ahead of their time, as a part of the Krautrock movement and the creation of electronic music. I now understand where bands such as Stereolab and Devo got their inspiration from. I hadn’t heard such raw experimentation with electronic music until Harmonia. Their music will certainly expand your mind with their abstract approach and sense of displacement, perfect for those nights where you want to get away from the world and get lost in a great record. So, if you are looking to get into something more avant-garde and would like to know the origins of electronic music or are already a big fan, pick up Harmonia’s Complete Works.