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Roedelius - Selbstportrait, Vols. I & II

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Artist: Roedelius

Album: Selbstportrait, Vols. I & II

Label: Bureau B

Review date: Feb. 8, 2011

Holed up at home in the rural German town of Forst, Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius recorded some organ improvisations between 1973 and 1977 that the Sky label later released in 1979. That album, Selbstportrait, and its more polished sequel, 1980’s Selbstportrait Vol. II, are now being reissued by Bureau B, which specializes in this sort of thing. The “crazy shit recorded in the woods” story is as old as portable tape recorders, and naming albums “self-portrait” is even older than that — but don’t be tricked into thinking these albums are “essential forerunners of ambient music,” “lost gems,” or “valuable for people who aren’t convinced the records Cluster made with Brian Eno are any good.” That’s marketing — Selbstportrait’s so scattered and uneven that it might as well be a Sun Ra record … but it’s not without its appeal. If you bring patience and low expectations, and it will yield some surprising rewards.

Cluster’s star has risen in the hypnagogic era thanks to bands like Emeralds. But in contrast to the current vogue for the arpeggio, Cluster relied heavily on keyboard-playing chops. Legit piano-playing skills are all over Selbstportrait and it’s one of the reasons it sounds unrelated to anything coming out today. This guy probably knows chord structure and scales. Sure, you can detect signature hypnagogic elements (nostalgia and a lo-fi aesthetic) in these songs, but the similarities end there: these tracks rely on improvisation and have a focus on melody that seems kind of cute for not trying to muscle you under with bullshit ideas about cosmic music.

It should be said that a lot of the improv here doesn’t rise above the level of “dicking around,” particularly given the kinda-classical idiom Roedelius was moving toward at this point in his solo career. Within a song, one phrase might be delicious and the next wooden. In these two Selbstportrait’s, songs are built around a rhythm box or rolling organ loop over which a melodic idea is worked out or squandered. Sometimes it sounds like carnival music. It’s different enough from the albums Roedelius is known for — and from the music coming out now that’s indebted to it — to make you think you’ve never really heard what Cluster was actually up to.

The first Selbstportrait is very rough — there are a lot of wrong notes and rambling tracks that pass by without leaving much of an impression. The recording quality is poor, and it is heavy in the mids with some piercing treble. It’s one of those listening experiences where you’re never quite sure how much attention you should be paying: Listening too closely is bound to be as uneventful as watching someone knit, but put it too far in the background and it’s more ambient than a lot of what passes for ambient music. “Inselmoos” is the litmus test here: there’s a soaring flute flavoring clusters of synth-harpsichord notes that glom together and then trail off. You might have experience doing this in the Garageband program. There’s about a 50 percent chance that the ideas Roedelius pursues when he drops in will pan out, and the rest of the time the song barely holds together. It has the same naive medieval benevolence and distracted musicality as the music that plays when you enter a healing spring, your home village, or a peacetime castle in many RPGs.

There are other tracks that also sound like occasional music: “Tee für die Geisha” from II is an Orientalist puff piece, but nice as these things go. Then there are the total duds, like “Arcona,” from the first volume, which rides a nice Harmonia-lite rhythm from the sofa to the other sofa and back. Roedelius saved the best tracks for the end of each album. “Staunen im Fjord” has the same kind of drifting indoor prettiness as the quieter tracks on Before and After Science, and “Thronfolge” uses the looping structures of golden-era Cluster to push warm organ swells at the listener. Go ahead, bask in it.

If there were a literary analog for the music on Roedelius’s Selbstportrait albums, it might be the writer’s journal: rambling and peripheral, but with flashes of brilliance hiding among the mundane details and bird sightings. Maybe this is just a guy mumbling rhyming dada poems into a tape recorder. Who knows? It’s an intensely subjective product at every turn. Are these sketches good by any stable musical criteria? Not really. But if you have the time and inclination to make listening to it more of a practice than an act, the highs and lows even out to a nice, sustained buzz.

Thoughts of being part of a community, one that exists mostly online, are a fact of making music now. And it’s one that extends to listening: our ideas about our own tastes and worries about the company that puts us in, precede and directly influence what happens when we sit down with a record. Cluster is one of those groups you’re supposed to love if you’re a certain kind of listener. If nothing else, these self-portraits must be useful in helping people sort out how they actually feel about a band that’s often name-dropped but only dissected in the vaguest terms.

By Brandon Bussolini

Other Reviews of Roedelius

Selfportrait VIII: Introspection

Jardin Au Fou

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Find out more about Bureau B

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