02. B. Aldrian 4:51
03. Emphasis 4:55
04. Synthesist 7:34
05. 1847 - Earth 6:43
06. Trauma 6:37
07. Transcendental Overdrive 5:03
08. Tai Ki 4:09
Harald Grosskopf / keyboards, drums & percussions
In summer 1979, Harald Grosskopf-- a drummer who lived in Berlin and had appeared on recordings by Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Tempel, Cosmic Jokers, and others-- holed up in the apartment of a friend in Krefeld, Germany, to record his debut solo album. In the flat he had a Minimoog, a primitive sequencer, an 8-track reel-to-reel recorder, and a lot of time alone. Over the course of several weeks, Grosskopf wrote and recorded the material that wound up on Synthesist, which was eventually released on the venerable Hamburg-based kosmische imprint Sky. RVNG has reissued the album, which is held in high esteem among early synth enthusiasts but is not widely known, along with an additional disc of re-workings by some of the record's admirers (Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Arp, etc.) Between the original record and the new versions, Synthesist offers an endlessly listenable introduction to Grosskopf's music that also serves a fascinating window into the sound of a specific time and place.
In the liner notes to the set, Grosskopf writes of how maintaining the Minimoog in the apartment was a nightmare, and that the pitch would go flat or sharp depending on warm and cold it was in the space. He eventually figured out that if he placed a 60-watt light bulb near the synth, he could regulate the temperature enough to keep the instrument sounding good. This image-- of new breakthroughs in sound-making technology having difficulty being used because of the of their surroundings-- is a nice snapshot of where music technology was in the days of analog electronics. These were the sounds of the future, but they still existed in the physical world, where things like air temperature mattered. Sounds hadn't yet been broken down into 1s and 0s, where they could be endlessly manipulated without degradation. So Grosskopf's future music was confronting the same problems that had vexed instrumentalists for centuries-- how to keep the damn things in tune.
The music on Synthesist hovers in an intriguing middle ground between instrumental synth-pop in the vein of early Kraftwerk and more free-form space-drone explorations popularized by Schulze and Tangerine Dream. The tracks are mostly compact and tend to hum along to a pop-friendly electronic pulse, but they aren't tied into any sort of verse/chorus structure. Because of this, the music has a floating, airy quality, always in motion but untethered by song, which puts even more focus on the glorious analog textures.
The record is divided neatly into two distinct halves. On the first side are the more tuneful tracks. "So Weit, So Gut" hovers in a space between Giorgio Moroder's theme from "Midnight Express" and a Jan Hammer interlude for a montage on "Miami Vice"-- there's a dark undercurrent pulling the bubbly keyboard percolations into some kind of nocturnal dread. "B. Aldrian" in contrast twinkles with nostalgia, with gently shifting keyboard drones that seem designed to soundtrack a narrative about the benevolent wonder of outer space. The title track, with its "Popcorn" bass sequence and overlapping melodies, overwhelms with its simple beauty and naive charm. There's a sense of lightness and optimism permeating the tracks on the first side, which forms a sort of argument that the electronic future was going to be a wonderful place.
The second side shades that outlook and delves more in the realm of dystopian sci-fi. "1847 - Earth" is built around a metallic drone that establishes a sense of anxiety that is furthered when percussive keyboard sequences come in signaling something tense, almost frantic, while "Trauma" sounds like something fizzing up from an underground cavern, the reverb on the synths bringing to mind the dark ambient spaces Robert Rich and Steve Roach would explore a couple of years later. Between the two halves of the record, Synthesist offers a complex array of feelings and settings, but it flows together and feels complete. Throughout, is a sense of joy, wonder, and playful exploration, even when the music leans dark, as it often does on side two.
The various versions on Re-Synthesist ask a simple question-- what happens when we translate these textures and ideas into the present? The biggest differences have to do with the presence of steady 4/4 kicks and a tendency to favor his moodier material. So Brooklyn duo Blondes take "Synthesist", give it a steady beat, and add a harsh alloy to the keyboards. Oneohtrix Point Never's "Trauma 2010" has a dramatic drone encircled by orbiting clusters of static and noise. JD Twitch from Optimo locks the synths into tight little phrases that border on the techno that would come a few years after Synthesist's release. And James Ferraro's hypnotic "Wishmaster (Transcendental Overdrive Zone)" strikes an imaginative balance between repetition and small, incremental change.
For the most part these versions are reverent, which gives the record a nice flow for a disc from various artists set. It's almost hard to imagine a more coherent and logical remix/re-work companion, since nearly all of these artists are already drawing heavily from the world Grosskopf inhabited in 1979. And while I can't imagine reaching for Re-Synthesist very often when Synthesist is handy (Grosskopf's drumming is especially missed), I am glad it exists. It's a bunch of artists celebrating a fantastic record that was a direct precursor of where they are now. They should be celebrating the original record, given how much their music now owes to it and work like it, and so should anyone else interested in the sound of the electronic music that ushered in the 80s.