A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Ambient Classics: Tangerine Dream – Aachen January 21, 1981 album review

On this classic ambient album, Tangerine Dream motor confidently into a new year with a new lineup, eschewing space ambient for a tighter, more song-focused prog ambient.

Tangerine Dream Aachen January 21, 1981 album cover

Ah, the early ’80s – is there anything like it? That euphoric feeling of confidence – white suited, beloafered young professionals cruising boldly into the future in a slick, sleek well engineered automobile, brokering power deals on early boxy carphones; flashing white teeth and snorting white powders. The future so bright you’ve got to don Ray Bans. There’s no time for retrospection, for looking into the rearview mirror. The future looms large, like a Times Square neon sign, like a mushroom cloud.

“No time for gazing in the rearview. The future looms large, like a Times Square, like a mushroom cloud. image: Squre Times, Rudy Burckhardt

This might be the last moment of true, unfettered futurism. Very shortly, culture (at least in the West), would turn their back on the chaos and confusion of the Future to embrace nostalgia, perhaps succumbing to the yearning for childhood and simpler times in light of an increasingly dystopian outcome of the Modernist mission.

It seems that a certain sort of earnestness may only be possible with the confidence of Modernism and Futurism. There were still horizons to be crossed, summits to reach. Soon, all of these ideals, these potential futures, would be hoovered up into capitalism’s particle accelerator – repackaged and then sold back to us. Where once was a bold, confident embrace of new technology and new forms, in keeping with the classical music of the 20th Century – would soon succumb to a kind of pretentious pomposity – a bloated, po-faced art rock.

Aachen: January 21, 1981 finds the mighty Tangerine Dream perfectly straddling this divide – one foot in the techno utopian ideals of the spacy proto-ambient music of the 1970s that they helped to create, the other in a kind of muscular, uber-efficient ’80s POP.

Tangerine Dream are the perfect sorcerers to capture this shifting zeitgeist – this is the band that helped to create ambient music, dark ambient, and a peculiar kind of cybernetic rock in the ’70s – coming out of the wake of krautrock – but also gave us the soundtrack for that template of neon noir, Risky Business.

Musically, the two discs of Aachen: January 21, 1981 embody this dichotomy nicely, as well, seeped in the incense-soaked technomysticism of ’80s New Age culture but also cast in the synthetic rock power ballads of bands like Toto, Chicago, Boston, Air Supply. Comprised of two discs, seemingly made up of two sets, Aachen is one long uninterrupted flow, moving effortlessly from the hypnotic minimalism of Tangerine Dream’s Berlin School sequencer workouts to more song-based fare. Sometimes the music gives out altogether, leaving only a stream of atonal, non-musical sounds – like watching motherboards whizz by on an assembly line.

Sometimes the music gives out altogether, leaving only a stream of atonal, non-musical sounds – like watching motherboards whizz by on an assembly line.

On display are some classic Tangerine Dream tunes, “Undulation” and “Calymba Caly,” “Choronzon,” and fan favourite “Force Majeure.” Aachen finds Tangerine Dream recording as a trio – the core duo of Edgar Froese and Chris Franke joined by new member Johannes Schmoelling. The liner notes aren’t forthcoming on who played what (does anybody know?). Instead, all 3 members feed notes and tones into the rushing stream of ever-evolving machine minimalism.

TD aren’t content to merely noodle and jam around the endless circular rhythms and motifs provided by the sequencers. Some of Aachen‘s most thrilling moments are relatively stripped down and all-too-human, like the unadorned piano minimalism of “Elisenburg,” bringing to mind some of the ecstatic solo performances of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans in the ’70s but laced with hypnotic field recordings. Or the downright epicness of “Diamond Diary (guitar part)”.

Listening backwards, with the benefit of 40 years and 3 days, it’s possible to place Tangerine Dream (and the Berlin School in general) in a tradition of Teutonic classical music, seeking every possible permutation and modulation in an endless machine music, as can be heard in the eternity of Bach’s counterpoint. Although mechanistic, Aachen January 21, 1981 never becomes mechanical. This is not the sound of machines playing themselves like you’d get with Kraftwerk. This is the sound of the man-machine, of humans living in harmony with technology, unleashed for its full utopian possibilities instead of being yoked to the death machine of capitalism.

Listening to old futurism is an interesting exercise. If yr not careful, it can quickly become just more nostalgia, which the music seems to be pretty clearly negating – a yearning for a less complicated time, perhaps of one’s childhood if you were alive in the ’80s. Or it can be an act of reflective nostalgia, as put forth by theorist Svetlana Boym in her book The Future Of Nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia involves interacting with the past critically. Divorced from the propulsive thrust of futurism, no longer novel, you simply have to ask – “does this sound good?” “Is this good music?”

On the count of Aachen January 21, 1981 i, for one, answer with a resounding yes. It’s unclear what kind of gear Tangerine Dream were working with (again does anyone know?), but it sounds marvelous! The synths are warm, glowing – exquisitely recorded in all their analog glory. Pink Floyd at their most mystical are one touchstone, as is the ancient futurism of Popol Vuh. But it also brings to mind ’80s New Age (and also newage, but more on that later) music, conjuring some grand cosmic mall listening kiosk in yr mind so vividly you’ll be able to smell the popcorn and chlorine.

“it also brings to mind ’80s New Age (and also newage, but more on that later) music, conjuring some grand cosmic mall listening kiosk in yr mind so vividly you’ll be able to smell the popcorn and chlorine.”

Aachen also is impressively forward-looking. This particular brand of cybernetic synth rock would resurface in the 2000s – 2010s with music from the cassette tape underground, especially with bands like Emeralds and related projects.

These are some of the redemptive powers of reflective nostalgia – the ability to admit and admire the strengths of the past without merely worshipping it. Aachen January 21, 1981 is also an interesting historical document, inviting us to reflect on the last 40 years and all that’s past. It’s an invitation to preserve the good but discard the detritus.

Tangerine Dream’s gear

As i sometimes do, i’m also calling upon yr collective musical and theoretical expertise. I’d love to be a stone-cold expert on all things ’80s but am not quite there yet. Does anyone happen to know what gear Tangerine Dream were working with on their 1981 tour? Also, does anyone know of any books or articles on ’80s New Age music? Would love to read more!

Finally, what’re some other classic ambient albums you’d like to see covered on Forestpunk? I’m going to be doing a lot more writing on historical music this year, as i’ve been researching like a madman here on this end of things. Am actively working on the Dark Ambient Classics, Post-Punk Classics, and Ambient Classics, so far! Would love to lend my ears to help spread the word on excellent exploratory music of all eras. Let me know in the comments or get in touch with me on Twitter!

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