Classic Rock Review

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Tangerine Dream Rubycon (1975)


Although never really a psychedelic outfit, Tangerine Dream are bizarrely sometimes mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Iron Butterfly instead of their more natural partners, Kraftwerk. Doubtless, many experimental members of the late 60s and early 70s counterculture would have considered a Tangerine Dream album to be the perfect soundtrack to their chemical novas, but the commercial and creative zenith reached in the mid 70s was largely due to the new, experimental equipment they invested in; this was a band making the music of the future. These strange new sounds hit the masses hard withPhaedra; it was only right that the Greek should be followed by the Roman – Rubycon, and well named it is too, the Rubicon being the river crossed by Julius Caesar that symbolically declared war; the ‘point of no return’. Rubycon’s portentous, swirling mass of paranoid emotion and freefalling trips through space and time are a million miles away from the safety of psychedelic rock.

Part 1

It opens gently enough, in a cold, dark room. An eerie echo shudders, a muffled bell-like sound bongs here and there undecidedly, and delicate watery effects twinkle through the emptiness. Where is this? There is an almost tangible sense of unease pervading the air; the feeling is tense, yet blank, almost sterile. A keyboard pitches a hint of a melody higher, and higher. But then a choral surge rises up, the clouds part, the light shines through. Wherever you were before, you have now reached a place of peace. A flock of gulls soars overhead, and the mellotron kicks in. Synthetic shimmers lap the shore, subtle percussive bubbles spatter the speakers. This beach, this mountain-top, this place in the clouds; it glows with purity, with aerial freedom, with evocation. You feel the warmth of the sun. All is well.

And then, without warning, the wind lets up, the waters recede, the harmony evaporates. Skittering rattles precede an ominous low murmur; warm, electric, dark. What will emerge? A sequencer line builds up tempo, like a terrible rising fire, and suddenly it doesn’t seem as safe anymore. Pacy, dramatic, it burrows its way into your mind. Here and there, a synth line tries to ride over it all, strange, blank, empty echoes attempt to interrupt, whispers of vague melodies strain to be set free, but the relentless rhythm throbs away insistently, and the other effects can only play second fiddle. The sound is of urgency, maybe the thrill of the chase, or the sound of a slow build-up of power, confirmed when a sudden static buzz penetrates the rhythm from out of nowhere, and a prepared piano abruptly CRASHES ferociously out into the world, dissipating into a grandiose echo and some tribal, bone-clanking percussion. The tension is still there, inexorably pulsing along; the pace desperate, paranoid, urgent. But it’s a false lull; the low murmurs of male voices wailing in haunting unison herald the foreboding buzz again, and the cataclysmic off-key CRASH sounds again; a momentary breath, and then a third and final wave of discordant hellish sound SMASHES down. The sequencer line finally starts to lose some of its intense heat as metallic thumps and echoes clang dully, accompanied by clicks of hollow, wooden percussion, and finally those tense shimmers are earthed and melt away into nothingness. Breathless, you close your eyes. Whatever it was, it’s over.

Part 2

Or is it? An ominous hum signals the beginning of part two, developing into a low, melancholy, wretched siren, the droning buzz of the synthesisers only adding to the doleful feeling of enemy planes flying over a black sky. The stifling fear, the dry uneasiness; all the prelude. Before you felt only the excitement of tension; now you develop a sense of utter dread as the despairing moans of the souls of the dead rise up out of the mire, and a bead of hot sweat runs down the back of your neck, as if you were standing at the gates of hell. Wherever this is, wherever you imagine it to be, it’s a lonely, desolate place. You can feel the heat of the flames. Subliminal despair reigns supreme.

Uneasily, a Moog takes a few uncertain steps away from the doomy choir, and then another determined rhythm pewts confidently in, stuttering along repetitively; a bassline builds into a heartbeat, airy synths take off, and the shimmers of light return. Before you were in the depths of the earth; now, you’re flying through space, eyeing the cosmos, shooting through the void. Galaxies, quasars, stars; all rush by in a second. You can travel anywhere; you can do anything. Sharp, pulsing pewts and squeals afford a brief glimpse of the future – the near-literal out-of-this-world synthetic effects that would feature so prominently in many melody lines from then on. But the light-speed pace climaxes into an ear-splittingly high-pitched screech, and eventually dissipates, descends, and dissolves. In water.
Opening your eyes, you’re on the beach again, the waves lapping your feet. Unnerving, uneasy buzzes and delicate shimmers beg the question; are you safe at last? Have you survived the journey through chilling, empty rooms, outran the pursuer, dodged your enemies, emerged from the bowels of hell, survived your interstellar trip through space? Improbably, a flute solo has the answer – Peter Baumann ending your trip with the purest of sounds; gently, organically, and conclusively. Was it all a dream?

Of course, that’s only one interpretation. The multitude of layered sounds allows the listener to use his own imagination to come up with a meaning for it all, if indeed there’s one to be had. With just as much sonic complexity and texture as Phaedra, the sole advantage that Rubycon has over its sublime, drifting predecessor is a stronger sense of passion; a relentless urgency that fools you into thinking that the album is a short, sharp, flash in the pan, though the 34 minutes here is a very tidy and quality-assuring sum enough (in those vinyl times). Neither album lacks beauty or feeling, but though this is widely viewed as Tangerine Dream’s second-best album, in reality it comes down to personal choice – which is more important to you: aesthetic perfection (Phaedra) or emotive depth (Rubycon)?

Naturally, this won’t appeal to everyone. There are rhythms, but no beats; notes, but few melodies. The formlessness of the music is part of the charm, as is the suffocating, claustrophobic darkness punctuated by faint glimmers of light. Edgar Froese’s reversed guitars, Baumann’s flute and prepared pianos are all in there, carefully tucked away amongst the mellotrons, all conjuring up the feeling of the Rubicon – the life and death, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. What’s it all about? That’s the beauty of Tangerine Dream. It means whatever you want it to mean.


January 6, 2014 Posted by | Tangerine Dream Rubycon | | Leave a comment