Album review: Klaus Schulze & Pete Namlook – The Dark Side of the Moog Vol. 6

A bleak, compelling space odyssey that never quite figures out where it’s headed.

Genre: Progressive electronic/Kosmische Musik with classical, trance, and dub influences
Country: Germany
Release date: 1997
Label: Fax +49-69/450464 (reissued on vinyl by Music on Vinyl)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: MOVLP2748

Personnel:
Klaus Schulze
Peter “Pete Namlook” Kuhlmann
with
Bill Laswell
(all roles uncredited)

1.

The Final DAT (Part I)

7:55

2.

The Final DAT (Part II) 

7:09

3.

The Final DAT (Part III)

4:42

4.

The Final DAT (Part IV)

9:01

5.

The Final DAT (Part V)

24:10

6.

The Final DAT (Part VI) 

10:41

Total running time:

63:48

I must confess I have never before had much of a taste for electronic music. Having grown up listening to classical, jazz, and the occasional rock music, I find it hard to separate music from performance, with most of what little electronic music I’ve listened to mostly being soundtracks, mere window dressing for whatever the music is meant to go along with—a movie, a television show, a video game. But seldom before in human history has the economic deck been so pitilessly stacked against musical performers than in the modern Western world; seldom has it been so hard to survive by making music with one’s hands, on instruments. Instrumental performers and bands in the modern era bleed money at a rate few people can afford—instruments, consumables like strings or drumheads, lessons, practice venues, studio time, recording fees, merchandising fees, advertising fees, fees associated with venues, an endless carnival of quite literal pay-to-play. Those who are not among the lucky few who achieve mainstream success nowadays most often have to continually dump their own money into their bands or projects. Can anyone blame modern musicians, then, for their overwhelming embrace of sequenced electronic music, music that can be made at home, at whatever pace suits those who make it, often by one or two people, on a computer? A computer won’t charge you thousands of dollars in fees, or force you to work at its convenience. A computer will not tell you what sort of music to make, what tones to use, what clothes to wear, to change this thing or that thing because of market research. Nor is it even necessary to meet one’s creative partners or work at the same time; one can simply share work over the internet.

It’s certainly hard to imagine something like The Dark Side of the Moog, a truly enormous eleven-album series of multipart electronic space epics with titles that riff on Pink Floyd, built around and named for a synthesizer that was the absolute antithesis of musical fashion in the mid-1990s, coming out of the traditional band pipeline. Originally released on Pete Namlook’s label Fax +49-69/450464 (to name it is to know how to send a picture of your buttocks to it—the fabled German Effizienz?), The Dark Side of the Moog is a work of Wagnerian scale with a positively sumptuous sound quality, like a soundtrack for a sci-fi movie series without a sci-fi movie series or clear genre affiliation or apparent target market or any reason for existing because the people who made it wanted it to. With Klaus Schulze wielding a hulking Moog modular synth, ‘70s Kosmische Musik like his classic albums Timewind and Blackdance is assured, though the selection of timbres is more limited since there is only one analog synth highlighted instead of an entire arsenal. In addition to Schulze’s icy synths and Namlook’s even icier beats comes Bill Laswell, who for Vol. 6 lends his trademark funk/dub bass sounds and grooves to give it a more rhythmic character than most of the other albums in the series, which can dawdle for tens of minutes in spacy meanderings that test my patience as they work out their variations with Brucknerian thoroughness.

Indeed Schulze in particular has always been heavily influenced by late Romantic German classical composers, having on several occasions paid homage to or even borrowed musical ideas from Richard Wagner and his operas. However, in general he composes more like Bruckner than Wagner—subtle rather than blasting, abstract instead of directly evocative. Indeed Klaus Schulze takes abstraction much further than Bruckner did, and while there is Romantic influence in this music, its clinical, cosmic starkness of this music leaves little room for the larger-than-life mythic figures of 19th century Romanticism. There are no gods or heroic warriors “out there” in this cold, lonely space odyssey, nor even intrepid Heinleinian astrogators plotting trajectories on circular slide rules.

The Dark Side of the Moog has previously been rare and expensive, with CDs made in limited runs only in Europe. The new vinyl version is by Music on Vinyl on two discs, both with impeccable appearance and sound quality, though the lead-in grooves are much narrower than usual and make it difficult to cue the record accurately. The jacket is strong and sturdy enough to avoid the common problem of cracking with two heavyweight discs inside, and the glossy finish looks very nice—until your fingerprints get on it. The liner notes are sparse, with some trivial retrospectives but no information on the production or the roles the three musicians played, nor any credits aside from them. Instead of useful information or recognition for the vinyl mastering engineer’s labor, it provides a diagram showing that the generic spacey image on the cover can be laid next to the covers of three other volumes from the series to create a larger spacey image. Only ninety dollars more for a full set!

That mastering engineer doubly deserves credit because Dark Side of the Moog, Vol. 6 sounds absolutely fantastic on vinyl, with deep bass frequencies, usually a weakness of vinyl records that one hears through one’s bones as much as one’s ears, and a noise floor that is almost imperceptible. The soundstage is wonderfully open and spacious, with the layers in the recording carefully arranged not to drown each other out, and everything comes through clearly, especially the inconsistencies and limitations that, like with a traditional instrument, give the Moog its distinctive character. The Moog does not modulate a patch into neat, antiseptic, perfectly uniform tones; in synthesizing a sound from the ground up it coughs, rasps, grinds, warbles, sighs, and cries in a way that would be almost voice-like except for the fact that, while it replicates many of a voice’s abilities, it still has a distinctly “inorganic” sound that fits perfectly with the cold, deadly majesty conjured up by this album.

In a way this almost feels like a premonition of synthwave and its derivative genres—as synthwave and the related waves are heavily influenced by and trade on the cultural memory of the house and soundtrack music of the 1980s, this effort from the 1990s seems to do with the same with Kosmische Musik of the 1970s, but but lacks the rigidly nostalgic “hauntology” of synthwave, feeling much more exploratory and willing to expand on the basic idea of space music in a new context rather than merely pastiche it. The -wave genres and vaporwave especially float in a shattered dream world of commodities and business exchanges severed from all context; the equally dreamy world of The Dark Side of the Moog spins is one in which those relations have been expunged, an attempt at a sort of secular re-enchantment. And it might seem strange to think of “enchantment” and spiritual matters in general being so strongly connected to space travel and technology in this case, but the idea of such a connection goes far beyond Star Wars and “Singularity” cultists.

In fact, one could argue that even most professed atheists are not as far from religion as they claim, nor are the neo-pagan and New Age types as far away from the “empty materialism” of atheism as they claim. What is at stake in the strife . Indeed, atheism and neo-pagan/occult spirituality developed in recognizable form around the same time, in the late 19th century, and are thoroughly modern ideas. Both deny the existence of a “supreme being” who stands apart from the material world and is uniquely holy; the new movements held that the material could be numinous too. The pagans, having assigned numinosity to natural forces, assign personality and agency to them, and intense relationships with humans and life more generally. But many secularists instead see the universe as greater than humanity, yes, powerful, yes, but deny any special consideration for life processes or human thought in the cosmos—we and all our creations are just a by-product. And such a worldview bends, almost inevitably, towards space—as ancient, as vast, and as utterly indifferent to humans and the needs of their fragile meat bodies as anything could possibly be.


Klaus Schulze and Pete Namlook with Robert Moog, the inventor of the first practical programmable synthesizer. If you like his invention, you’ll like this.

The Dark Side of the Moog Vol. 6 isn’t all electronic, with electric guitar making its appearance at several points in the album, and “The Final DAT, Part II” also adds Bill Laswell’s dub-style bass guitar (similar to his work in Material or on Bernie Worrell’s Free Agent: A Space Odyssey, recorded only a few years earlier). Of all the movements here, Part II has the most “live” feel—certainly the guitar, bass, and synth leads here. Schulze’s synth leads here are one of the rare times where he shows off his abilities as a performer rather than a composer and arranger, and on an otherwise very rigid record in terms of rhythm, his playing here dsplays a much more flexible and nuanced sense of time and phrasing. It sounds almost like an Eloy song, but much more sophisticated in its arrangement and much more ominous and coyly threatening in mood, especially the deep bass synth rasps that, on a good stereo, can be felt in your bones.

On the other hand, “Part V”, the massive centerpiece of the album, is the most mechanical of all, and doesn’t so much play as proceed, starting with a melodic introduction to ease the listener in and building up a set of loops built around a constant up-tempo pulse that never stops, even as it is transformed with different sounds and “instruments”; even when the percussion drops out altogether in places, this rhythm is still implied by the harmonic motion of the backing chords. On top of it, Schulze and Namlook work through almost every conceivable variation of those starting loops, transforming them into new loops, and throwing in melodic fragments from earlier movements, especially “Part II”. However, it is too unstructured and redundant to withstand a close listening; most of the best ideas are used early on, and there is a particularly violent section with some harsh metallic crashes that sounds like it’s building up to a climax, but it’s only around thirteen minutes in, and nothing nearly as dramatic happens for the rest of the movement, making it feel like something of a musical shaggy-dog story. It feels like it’s trying to be spacefaring equivalent to Kraftwerk’s famous “Autobahn”, but “Autobahn” has a much clearer sense of development, and its ending actually feels like an ending rather than just the music stopping because the musicians ran out of ideas.

Indeed, a lack of structure and sense of destination is the biggest stumbling block for the entire Dark Side of the Moog series—these multipart opuses all sound like very well-recorded first drafts, with all the pieces there but in the wrong order and with bits of lesser material that would be better off cut entirely. Perhaps that’s fitting with the idea of a soundtrack—it does make excellent background music when you’re doing something else, but unlike real soundtracks, it does not supply its own “something else”, and correspondingly cannot help but seem incomplete. Still, it is evocative, haunting, sometimes gorgeous music and a testament to the continued relevance of analog equipment in a digital world. Shine on, Robert Moog. May your patch cords be many.

Rating: 70%

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