Sunday, January 25, 2015

Klaus Schulze - 1975 - Picture Music

Klaus Schulze
Picture Music

01. Totem (23:34)
02. Mental Door (23:03)
03. C'est Pas La Même Chose (33:00) (bonus track)

- Klaus Schulze / all instruments

Schulze's first true expression of his classic sequencer style (Blackdance was a step toward it, but it still relied heavily on the organ and Mellotron tones of his first two albums), and easily worthy of the attention given his more popular subsequent releases. The sound is stripped down from the shadowy haze of before, but the reduced instrumentation never sounds inadequate; Schulze's talent for atmosphere is as clear on this album as ever. And the music itself, even at this early stage, is some of his most engaging work ever.

The first side, "Totem", is absolute brilliance. There are only about three or so melodic lines playing at any given point - and on the monophonic synthesizers of the day, no chords to speak of - but they're executed masterfully. The main voice is a drippy, echoing tone that sounds about twenty years ahead of its time, the kind of sound that you'd expect from Autechre or Aphex Twin in the mid-'90s (!), picking out a dark, jagged theme that matches it perfectly, with muted moans and whistles ominously backing it. Analyzed and written out, it comes off as somewhat sparse, but the tones are chosen and mixed to maximum effect - the music's atmosphere is disproportionately vast, bringing up images of the lightless life at the floor of an ocean trench, or maybe astronauts at the edge of their life support against the black void of deep space. It is structured, building into fullness, then rising into a heavy climax before trailing off in a weary coda, but that atmosphere is never compromised by these developments. It's funny that Schulze would wait until now to call his work "picture music", given that impressions and images had always been his main focus, but the phrase is hardly undeserved.

After "Totem", "Mental Door" is a bit of a letdown, but it's still great. It's Schulze jamming against himself, blazing Moog lines fighting manic drumming (his first recorded performance on the kit since Electronic Meditation and sounding none too friendly after being pent up for five years), and this works for and against the album. For, because this kind of energy is always welcome, especially as a counterpoint to the hanging menace of the first side, but against, because after emerging from its foggy introduction, it abandons any hint of atmosphere in favor of that energy, which is disappointing coming from a musician like Schulze. (He'd eventually get both together for X's "Friedrich Nietzsche" and "Frank Herbert", putting this song's one-sidedness into further perspective.) But what Schulze does here he does to the fullest, never once letting up for the entire jam, and never forgetting to keep things varied and interesting. (His coolest trick is to punctuate it every once in a while with a sustained keyboard note while bashing out a straight rhythm on the cymbals; the effect is a bit like the appearances of the little electric piano motif in Miles Davis's "Spanish Key", but aggressive instead of amiable.) When the end eventually comes, it releases the jam's mounting tension in a final cymbal crash and high note (tragically not quite synchronized, but I don't see how Schulze could have fixed that in a tape edit without bringing the rest of the ending out of sync) before settling into a relaxed, fulfilled coda, closing out the album.

It's understandable that Picture Music has something of a low profile among Schulze albums, lacking Timewind's lushness or X's scale (or even the cult appeal of Irrlicht and Cyborg), and generally denied its rightful historical significance in favor of Blackdance ever since the chronology was resolved, but it'll always be a favorite of mine. Hopefully, someday, people will give it its due.

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