A “reduction to the essential things”
Available via Oblivion/SPV from 25 May 2018
Review by Paul H Birch
An early member of both Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Temple before embarking on a solo career, it’s calculated Klaus Schulze has been involved in somewhere between 200 and 500 recordings. At 70 years old you might think he would be slowing down and Silhouettes is indeed the German electronic music artist, composer and producer’s first album in five years; following an extended period of poor health. Recorded over the summer and autumn of last year it appears he wasn’t hanging around once he got back to work. However, the album is said to reflect this much needed quiet period in his life, being partially of a meditative nature. Sparse and often ambient, in all likelihood, we presume before even listening.
In attempting to review such a work how does one really go about it? (a) You study the sounds heard, what instruments you perceive create them, and list them – That can swiftly become mundane and boring outside the hyperbole we constantly reinvent to describe guitar solos, (b) Explain the style of music – it’s electronic, and despite being told we shouldn’t call it such anymore, let’s call a spade what it is and confirm it as Krautrock rather than say new age or dance related, (c) Most importantly, explain the feeling(s) it imbues within you – Without lyrics we more consciously frame it in our mind with film soundtrack analogies and then attempt to evaluate this in a semi-dignified literary manner, of sorts; the genres of fantasy and science fiction coming a little too easy when we do so.
That’s what I found myself doing; but hopefully in a manner that flows and helps you chose whether or not it’s something you would wish to purchase. More so, I tried a slight experiment: (a) Following on from my discourse above, I duly listened and described as best I could how the music made me feel and the aural impressions each piece left with me, (b) Then, using the internet, I translated the titles from their differing foreign languages to see if when given the chosen topic of the piece they correlated or changed my impression of them, and (c) Finally I read beyond the first paragraph or two of the record label’s PR bumpf and studied the comments Schulze himself had made to see whether or not he elicited his intended impressions to me as a listener.
Title track ‘Silhouettes’ already being in English, I have preconceived ideas of what it may sound like and the music actually reflects my mild expectation. Notes rise like shadows slowly moving in a curved line across a wall. Patient, suitably eerie; yet not something to be afraid of. The sound arc draws broader, a little more profound; sequenced sounds pulsating and fading, a melody still not fully defined is felt between successive percussive crescendos but then an ambient background aura begins to prevail. Ten minutes in the pace quickens, oscillating notes arrive like a clarion call for a return to the shadows as if it were some other dimension, or a least a restful state of mind. Then, in counterpoint, like ripples ebbing on a slow tide or time itself being nudged there is the impression of a dim 40 watt bulb forcing itself to remain lit and like the proverbial cartoon’s thought balloon reach a resolution in epiphany within just short of a quarter of an hour of your life. And it doesn’t feel that long. Intended as an overture of sorts, the track satisfies well enough of its own accord.
Schulze describes the music on Silhouettes as a “reduction to the essential things”. He consciously kept the music sparse with few solos: “No great distractions, nothing to force your attention in a certain direction, no major effects or gimmicks, no frills or dominant rhythms. It was important to me to paint the pictures in the depth of the space, the sonic fields of tension and atmosphere.” Certainly mental pictures were painted here for me.
‘Der Lange Blick Zurück’ follows. The warmer choral or mellotron sound that greets us instinctively feels different to the previous number. At eight minutes in it’s as if pixellated raindrops enter the aural soundscape, followed by the whirring of Moog-like synthesisers getting subtly deeper, and more serious like a heated discussion, the participants getting briefly excited before settling to a more mild-mannered debate. At 22.05 minutes long it has to be said that the last eight or so minutes simply hang there as a background filter, affecting the listener little.
In translation from German “Der lange blick zurück” means “The long look back”. If one views one’s youth warmly, get excited recalling the adventures that early adulthood offered and have reached an age where you’ve settled down and there are too few events of significance that fill your life, then the music presented achieves its goal. My latter comments could be said to reflect an elderly person’s feeling about life, but since Schulze has been enthused enough to compose again that can’t be an expression of his own feelings here, just that it did not engage this particular listener.
By contrast ‘Quae Simple’ appears brightly; percolating, then popping as sequenced sound waves rise in melody, embrace, merge then fall away even as crisper, crunchier ones unfold. This three minute opening section is the most lively of all the tracks heard so far. Then there is a shift as if we were studying something carefully – cellular life through a microscope with or the furthest stars through a telescope – The microcosm and the macrocosm. Warmer broader now, six minutes in it becomes louder, with purpose and what sounds like a real life rhythm section in the background. At nine minutes in the melody has depth, strives for questions then simmers until fading to sedate reflection at 11 minutes in. Two minutes later the rhythm section picks up, synthesisers squeezing out and crossing over each other. A moody thriller soundtrack scenario makes you listen more intensely at 15.43, as if following someone, at 18 mins it feels like a spritely chase ensues – yet one where pursuer and pursuant are both enjoying the thrill of it (like lovers in roleplay). That I stare at the clock and note the times at which the music changes is not because I’m bored rather that I’m more involved looking at the computer screen from where the music pours out waiting for something, though I not what. Between the 20-22 minutes mark, it as if this fictional couple in my mind embrace or at least an accord is made between them and there the music ends.
“Quae simple” is Latin for “what is simple” and maybe the simple things in life are best although we try to avoid them. Stretching things my mislead lovers final acceptance analogy might reflect this but I remain unsure, also that this has been a musical work of constant change implies a denial of simplicity. It engages the listener. Schulze commented “The result may appear to be unspectacular at first sight, but as with a microscope or a cosmic telescope, the evident should not really be what matters,” so my own microcosm/macrocosm comments appear right, but he goes further to explain why: “ Because there are levels in music that you can almost touch; that walk through the room – But first of all you have to allow the noise in your head to calm down so the music behind it becomes audible. Which may turn out to be very simple and for this reason very complex, depending on how far you’re prepared to venture into it.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, your average thrash metal merchant might not take so kindly to this record.
Finally we have ‘Châteaux Faits Des Vent’. Opening with a mellotron like sequence that is ominous but not overtly stark, an oscillating motif begins to plays quite merrily, then synthesisers squelch and fuzz about it, chords beginning to change. This causes an air of mystery to builds, but we feel safe in our inquisitiveness or perhaps our passive mind forced out of slumber. Five minutes in this unfolds further, chords changing and the arpeggio altering as the percussive rhythm section kicks in. Melodies slow a little and alter to add new sounds finally becoming brasher, racing with urgency; the melody persisting as if feigning to reassure all is well and yet by the pieces end, we retract our concerns, feeling we have reached our destination safely.
“Châteaux faits des vent” is French for ‘castles made of wind’. What is Schulze’s philosophical intent here? It seems to point towards self-folly and yet, as with most of the music here, it’s calming, reassuring; confirming all is now well.
The final words by Schulze I’ve selected from the press release are these: “For me a piece of music takes time until it becomes alive. Theoretically I could of course cut down what people refer to as epic to four or five minutes. But then the dramaturgy of the work would break down completely. Since my debut album, I’ve always allowed my compositions the time frame they need.” It is a long album that’s for sure.
If you come to Silhouettes expecting radical sounds you’ll be disappointed, as for the most part it evokes moods that are relaxing and then a little stimulating. Analytical considerations are one thing and trying to get inside a composer’s head can help us appreciate their intentions a little deeper, but so too can they lead us down dark alleys, lost and confused, searching for a light in the shadows. But beyond that, it’s the music that counts.
- Der Lange Blick Zurück
- Quae Simplex
- Châteaux Faits Des Vent