Beyond the Froth

There may not be a band whose name invites casual derision more instantaneously than Tangerine Dream.

Discount from consideration Top 40 fly-by-nights and casino-circuit has-beens, and Tangerine Dream reigns in the band-as-punchline competition. For the general populace, its four syllables invoke the most spiritually bankrupt misdeeds of the new-age community. Any considered effort spent tracing the group’s musical achievement is undermined by the very presence of the band’s name. Thirty-plus years of record releases have not bought the group much good will.

Anyone who has cautiously nestled a comic book in a copy of Scientific American will appreciate the following procedure. Tangerine Dream’s name will not be mentioned for the remainder of this summary/appreciation. Instead, a pseudonym will be employed: Sequent.

The name Sequent serves as a proper touchstone for the band’s accomplishments. It’s the title of a brief composition from one of the group’s strongest studio albums, Phaedra, released in 1974 at the height of their association with Virgin Records (the full title of the song is actually “Sequent C'”). Haunting, a-melodic, circumspect, it’s everything their worst music loses sight of. The word also sounds like a truncation of “sequencer,” an essential tool in the production of today’s electronic music, and brings to mind the hi-tech wordplay of Autechre and Aphex Twin, young electronic acts that float comfortably in the wake of the band’s legacy.

And, to be frank, most of the group’s other song titles reinforce its conventional reputation for aether-headed froth (another Phaedra track is titled “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares,” and here’s one from the album Exit: “Pilots at Purple Twilight”).

First formed in the late ’60s, the group Sequent has released dozens upon dozens of albums, among them soundtracks to films such as Risky Business and Thief. Accounting for gatefold sets, the band’s biographer, Paul Stump, estimates, in his book Digital Gothic, that Sequent has recorded some 220 LP sides in total. That extensive recorded output ranges from noodly sound experiments, to dig-acoustic hybrids, to sinuous ambient near-classics, to the peppy, histrionic garbage that earned the band a reputation for peppy, histrionic garbage. They’ve also recorded the occasional Pink Floyd-style prog-rock song (check out the album Cyclone if that’s of interest; it features vocals by Steve Jolliffe, who has recently been collaborating with the band Eat Static).

As with most ambient godfathers (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Brian Eno), the CD era has done Sequent a service. The tabula rasa of digital reproduction lends the group’s quieter albums a hiss-free listening environment. It’s also allowed large-scale works, like the two-part Rubycon and Ricochet albums, to be heard without flipping the LP.

The one constant element throughout is founder Edgar Froese. The Lithuanian-born composer and musician is to Sequent what Robert Fripp is to King Crimson, what Dennis Franz is to NYPD Blue: the last man standing, the one who spurred his collaborators to do some of the best work of their careers, a challenge that may have worn out several of those collaborators in the process.

Froese and his shifting roster of associates deserve enormous credit for popularizing the Moog and other mood-inducing instruments, for experimenting relentlessly in the relative cultural vacuum that preceded today’s fascination with electronic ambience, and for retaining the free and improvisational spirit of much ’60s and ’70s European rock’n’roll.

5 Recommended Tangerine Dream Albums: Electronic Meditation (Relativity, 1970) The band’s first album is not a good starting point for new listeners, due to its chaotic, meandering content, but it’s definitely helpful in appreciating the group’s career arc.

Zeit (Relativity, 1972) Four tracks, each in the 16-to-20-minute range. The distinguishing factor is the inclusion of a cello quartet — those deep strings meld perfectly with organ and Moog.

Phaedra (Virgin Records, 1974) Perhaps the peak of their association with Virgin Records. If albums were categorized by the movies that they’d best accompany, Phaedra would get filed under The Abyss and Fantastic Voyage.

Rubycon (Virgin, 1975) Ambient music with a beat. Pulsing, bouncing, endless travelogues in a minor key. More philosophical than mournful. Fortunately lacks the treacly, flamboyant melodies of the band’s lesser recordings.

Sorcerer (soundtrack) (MCA, 1977) Less perky than their Risky Business soundtrack, less remote than their Thief score, this was the perfect complement to the first Hollywood film directed by William Friedkin after The Exorcist.

Originally published, in slightly different form, by Pulse! magazine, September 2001.

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