Tangerine Dream - Phaedra - Review
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critics' view

Today, many people see electronic music as something that sprung up in the 90s, created by some high on crack elitist youths with top end computers. Much to the dismay of parents who dismiss this music and reminisce about the good old days of Van Morrison and The Beatles, electronic music was in strong force even then. Phaedra was the first ever commercial album to feature sequencers, all the way back in 1974. Albums featuring synthesizers even predated that in the 1960s. Even though electronic music was in its infancy, Phaedra was not just a collection of beeps and whirrs much like the sounds found in old Microsoft 3.1x computers. Rather a unique voyage of sound and art, that is still as influential today as it was back in the 70s. The sounds within the album may not reflect what artists are capable of producing today, yet the foundations of modern electronic music can be seen in the work of artists like Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk.

Tangerine Dream has certainly proved their longevity, in some ways. The band has gone through dozens of line up changes and over 15 members. Edgar Froese the founding member of Tangerine Dream is the only person who has remained in the band for a lengthy period of time. In their 40 years of existence, Tangerine Dream has made around 100 albums, sometimes missing horribly and at times verging on genius. It is clear however, where Phaedra falls on that line between genius and insanity.

The line-up for Phaedra was Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Christopher Franke. It is easy to see why this is often the most heralded Tangerine Dream lineup, with much of Tangerine Dream’s best work being created by the trio. One of the problems that Froese, Baumann and Franke faced when creating their early albums was that they really had no one to lead them. As such Tangerine Dreams’ first 4 albums that predated Phaedra lacked a concise vision. They were by no means bad albums; they just fell short in a number of areas, with Tangerine Dreams technical prowess and knowledge not able to match their dreams. Alpha Centauri for example felt like a rough and cut up journey, never quite flowing as it should. At times it showed glimpses of mesmerising soundscapes and ideas, yet too often these moments were then followed up by uncaptivating segments. Phaedra offers a more refined experience, a cerebral journey through sounds, genres and worlds. Their days of experimentation were not behind them when creating Phaedra, with experimentation still being key in the bands vision. But with experience and chemistry together, Tangerine Dream were now able to translate their ideas into sound with far more poise and control. Their music no longer detailed journeys through space; it explored the emotions of those journeys.

Although it would be impossible to infer any references to the ancient Greek mythological figure Phaedra, it is a track that can be satisfying no matter what state or mood you are in. Phaedra actually occurred by mistake, the band were experimenting with their new synthesizers and sequencers, just as the tape happened to be rolling. Even though the track was ridden with technical errors, Edgar Froese and crew left it pretty much as it was, only adding a few extra synth layers in parts of the song. The equipment that they were using was so experimental and shoddy, that with any slight change in temperature the equipment’s oscillators would flux. Resulting in ever changing tuning.

Phaedra essentially fits into the progressive and ambient genres. The first passage in Phaedra lasts about 4 minutes long with sweeping solar wind like swoops and a continuous moog synthesizer sound that cautiously builds up and creates a trance-inducing effect. As the passage builds up, so do the sweeping synth noises that somehow flow into a precipitated passage of rapid bass noise. The flow between the passages is spectacular, having a seamless transition between bass and synthesizer. The transitions in Phaedra truly show how much Tangerine Dream have developed since their often inharmonious prior works.

As the bass melts away, eerie moog synthesizer noises roll in and transform into a familiar slowly ascending movement. As the volume starts to rise, so do the sweeping solar noises fading in and out, with a variety of wavey synthesizer sounds weaved into the soundscape. The build up climaxes 10 minutes into the piece, with haunting choruses adding to the spine-chilling feel. After the build the scene is set on a desolate planet, with spooky organ chords, an eerie background hum and chilling alien like noises. As the song slowly fades out with its spine-tingling synthesizer noises, it is very difficult not to be drawn into the music; to imagine the scene Tangerine Dream intended to create. What Tangerine Dream do is absorb the listener into the music, and drive home the emotion of the experience. To call this song anything short of brilliance would be a fallacy.

Of course the album is not just one song in length, and although Tangerine Dream could have easily left it at that, the album still contains three more spellbinding songs. Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares is a solo piece by the band’s leader Edgar Froese. Rather than an artificial and detached sound that many ambient songs could be accused of, its spiralling synthesizer washes are abundant with emotion. The song never really reaches anywhere, yet the immersion in the journey brings much enjoyment.

The themes of the album do not differ much from the straight and narrow, yet the planets, galaxies and universes of each song are clearly defined. Movements Of A Visionary begins with stuttering bug like noises that creating a tense and frightening atmosphere. The transitions once again are done to perfection, with helicopter like noises fading in and out into those familiar moog synths. Unlike the title tracks desolate planet feel, Movements Of A Visionary feels full of life with croaking bugs and clicking insects dwelling inside the untamed jungle. Letting oneself drift away with the music creates a surreal experience of art and music blended into one, before Tangerine Dream quickly pull the listener out of their mesmerised state.

Sequent C' has a strong feeling of depression, with the minor key synthetic washes slowly making a path through the song. It is not of the same breed as the first 3 tracks, nor of the same magnitude. But it does make for a chillingly beautiful ending. The song does not dwell about, with its aching sorrow driven into the listener’s heart in just over two minutes. Whilst no magical world is created in the music, it acts as one last pure release of emotion as the album fades out.

As you can no doubt guess, Phaedra isn’t for everyone. If you permit yourself to be immersed into the music, and allow yourself to float away into Phaedra’s world then it is quite simply one of the most spell-binding albums of the 20th century. But with a sceptical & demanding mind Phaedra does not offer its full experience to the listener. The album is still as highly influential as it was back in the 70s, and it is easy to see why. Tangerine Dream truly were leaders in electronic music, they carved a path with Phaedra for future generations to follow and learn from. Genius is an overused term in the music industry, thrown about left right and center. Phaedra however is one of those rare cases where the term is merited.

Liberi Fatali
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