by Paul Ashby
Following founder Edgar Froese’s sudden passing earlier this year, fans new and old are examining, re-examining, and appreciating Tangerine Dream’s catalog. For the newcomer, or those wanting a refresher, there are several good places to start.
Four Tangerine Dream SHM-SACDs were released in late February via Virgin/Universal Japan. They’ll only play on SACD machines; also available are (slightly) less-pricey SHM-CD versions that’ll spin on standard players.
They’re difficult to find in the USA. They’re expensive. And they sound remarkably good — so much better than the mediocre first-issue Virgin UK CDs, or the late-80s budget LP reissues on Virgin UK, or crackly US LP versions on Jem’s Virgin International label. These new SACD reissues represent Tangerine Dream’s most transformative (and, at the same time, most consistent) mid-’70s era, when they transitioned from a psychedelic Krautrock combo into a more focused, powerful and unique electronic entity.
Mellotron, prowling Moogs, repetitive sequencer lines, all soaked in echo, phase and reverb…Phaedra isn’t easy listening. It wasn’t easy recording, either; legend has it that the bass frequencies damaged studio monitors during the sessions. But it wasn’t all sturm und drone — along with Tony Banks’ intro to Genesis’ “Watcher Of The Skies,” “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares” remains an exemplary early utilization of the Mellotron as a neo-classical keyboard of choice.
Phaedra‘s celestial throb was amazing then and it’s remarkable now, especially when considered in the context of the state of electronic music in 1974.
Following a seven-minute intro of faux-oceanic, new-age bliss-out fake-out, Rubycon descends into a whirlpool of darkly relentless sequencers. Phaedra merely hinted at this, a monolithic illustration of the disciplined implementation of synthesizers and hallucinogenic atmospherics to an ultimately …. organic yet ominous effect. Dude. Doesn’t the original meaning of “Rubicon” have something to do with water and the inability to turn back? Yeah. That.
This isn’t Tomita or Switched-On Bach or Vangelis or even Synergy. Rubycon is the sound of finely-honed menace. It’s the album that launched hundreds of thousands of acid trips– or, uh, so I’ve heard.
This live album is my least favorite of the four. Where Phaedra and Rubycon swirl, veer, soar and dive, Ricochet plods and meanders, with relatively little grace or form. The addition of drums, unheard in the TD studio lineup since 1973’s Atem, gives the album more of a progressive rock feel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the album has its moments. But if you’re going to skip any of these four, Ricochet might be the one worth missing; the recording benefits the least from the SACD remaster.
It’s very possible that the band, exhausted from touring and recording, needed to, shall we say, recoup and regenerate, and this live album gave them a chance to catch their breath. What came next would make the lull worth the wait.
It was inevitable — Tangerine Dream goes MELODIC! Purists might claim that the tuneful won out at the expense of more adventurous exploration…I mean, the title track resembles an actual song with nearly-recognizable verses and choruses, and you can tap your feet and hum to it. Also, here there be guitar solos. Horrors! But don’t despair (much), despairing types; the album still has unsettling vibes and TD’s trademark grainy ozone to spare. If flights of melancholy are your thing, Stratosfear will meet you halfway on the runway to broodville.
Overall, the sound on these SACDs (with the exception of the relatively drab Richochet) is excellent, especially on Stratosfear. The 12-string guitar on the latter has real presence, and the highs are delivered with a potent sizzle. If you like improved stereo separation and a more defined bass synth pulse to your Rubycon experience, you’ll feel it. There’s a lot going on in these recordings, and crappier masterings quickly turn the mid-low and low-end to mush. None of that here. There’s a clarity to the presentation sorely lacking on the old Virgin CDs. The soundstaging is much improved, as well.
The packaging is very Japanese, and by that I mean DELUXE, and high quality. “Mini-LP” gatefolds with obi strips, plus another obi that wraps around the back cover. Poly sleeves inside the glossy laminated jackets.
What’s missing? I’d LOVE Tangram (1980) in this format. It was the last truly great TD album. If subsequent SACD releases follow chronologically (and I have no evidence upon which to base this speculation), Encore, Cyclone, Force Majeure and Tangram should be the next batch. If there is a next batch. Fingers crossed.
USA sources for these reissues are … scant. Amazon US has them for $60. Yes, each. That would be $240 for all four (but hey, shipping is free with Amazon Prime!). CDJapan is selling them for $33.00 each plus shipping from Japan — about 25 bucks for all four, if you want them fast. But it’d be about $85 cheaper than getting them from the Amazon Borg.
Is it worth it for four SACDs? To a fan, on a decent system, at indecent dB levels, they’re justifiable. Incidentally, cranking these in the living room at “reference volume” is a blast, but one of the best parts of rediscovering these albums has been hearing them on good headphones through a quality headphone amplifier. Space music, inner space …that sort of thing.
One bit of advice: unless you’re a object-based, completist packaging slut like me, play for time and hope that these are released soon on DSD — for a few dollars less than $33 each.
And if you like this stuff, and haven’t already, go deeper into Edgar Froese’s solo career. Good starting points are Aqua, Epsilon in Malaysian Pale, and Macula Transfer, all from the same era as the SACD reissue series.
The audio from the YouTube embeds below is not encoded from the SACDs…not that anyone could really tell the difference on YouTube, I know. They appear to be from the 1994 series of remasters.
Interesting review(s), and good reading. I do disagree on a couple of points…
While Stratosfear is easily the sonic superior of the lot, materially, it is also the weakest. I don’t have a problem with the move to less-than-side-long-sprawling-epics, but they do have to be done well (examples I would point to are the shorter pieces on Cyclone, and all of Exit). Simply, Stratosfear is music they needed to make, as it is definitely plays as a stepping stone to (then) future greatness. However, I don’t think it is at all that good.
Ricochet is not as bad as you make it out to be. Sonically, it is not the worst (Phaedra gets the nod on that one rather easily, listening to my rig), and the plodding you refer to needs, I think, a little context: They are limited to the gear at hand, without the benefit of studio hardware to help add controlled layers of… stuff.
As the four play to me:
Phaedra shows TD crawling out of the primordial soup, and starting to walk upright (one of the reasons why I like this record a lot).
Rubycon is a huge step forward, both sonically and materially. There are things on that release that they continue to refer back to, and explore, as much as a decade later. Man, the beginning of Side 2 is tedious…
Ricochet is something of a step back. Technically and materially, it slots between their previous two releases perfectly.
Stratosfear is another huge evolutionary step forward, it jsut tends to lurch and stagger a bit.
My ranking: Ricochet, Phaedra, Rubycon, Stratosfear.
Regarding the last great TD record, I go a little bit further forward than you. I think there are a handful of releases after Tangram that are among their best (Thief, and Poland, most notably). The last one I hold as truly Top Shelf is Miracle Mile.
As Paul Haslinger is not getting much love here, I am compelled to mention his fantastic work on Halt And Catch Fire.
An excellent overview! I would do it on vinyl, but excellent nonetheless.
TONY Banks, surely?
This’ll be corrected, Gerard – thanks for pointing it out!
My own taste (it formed back then and hasn’t shifted), is for the music of their more experimental phase. Electronic Meditation – their first – was perhaps too much of an acquired taste, but I’d love to see Alpha Centauri, Zeit and Atem get the deluxe treatment