Sunday, 11 December 2016

Peter Baumann's Machines of Desire

Perhaps not quite literally after decades of absence (as he has produced and collaborated on some albums in recent years), Peter Baumann returned with a solo album. For Tangerine Dream afficionados, it really was a several decades-long pause.

Machines of Desire (with a perhaps unintentional hint of a classic Ray Bradbury tale's title, The Machineries of Joy) is a surprising affair.

Above all, it is an honest album on which Baumann has kept to his individual voice, without drifting (or downright flying) into current mainstream electronica - as Chris Franke and Edgar Froese have done in recent (but quite numerous) years.

It is a Peter Baumann album - not a dancey Baumann-esque album, not a Tangerine Dream-esque trip down memory lane, not electronic nostalgia and not a nod to populist electronic genres.

Much darker than the few Peter Baumann solo albums' material, much more cohesive in mood and structure, it really has the melodic and dramatic developments that sound familiar from his early solo albums. In this sense, after quite some decades, he seems to keep a remarkably stable voice and style.

Also, while it has sonorities and particular synth patches matching exactly some sounds heard on the by now vintage Transharmonic Nights, it is a contemporary album.

Tangerine Dream fans will recognise (especially on the second track, Searching in Vain) the characteristic, almost trademark, sounds of the PPG Wave and the familiar sequencer patterns. In some ways, this track is the most direct reference to the TD years.

The rhythms and melodies have that catchy Baumann signature, deceptively simple motifs that stay in one's head for a long time, without being cheesy or too playful (as in some of his early solo material).

There are processed choirs, vocoders reminiscent of parts of the ultra-rare The Keep soundtrack (the third track will jog our memory), precise sequencer and drum machine parts.

His orchestrations are refreshing in the current electronic mass production. Fast rotary speaker-altered pianos (remember Rubycon and Phaedra?) with vintage vocoders and mellotrons sit very comfortably with dark, state-of-the-art synthesized textures and organic woodwinds.

It is experimenting more bravely than some of its predecessors (not that there were many Baumann albums to refer to in this sense) - some of the darker and atmospheric parts from Transharmonic Nights stage a return in terms of mood, for example the opening track (The Blue Dream) and Echoes in the Cave.

Ordinary Wonder is perhaps the most surprisingly Transharmonic Nights-sounding track. Its melody, its playfulness, and even the synth patches remind one of that 1979 little gem. The ominous development and tense sequencers are a splendid little treat almost in the very middle of the album.

Overall, while the album may not at all be a 'wonder' in the current landscape of electronic albums, it is not an ordinary one at all.

Going back to the earlier point, it is a neat LP-length sonic package... Don't expect to be rocked to your foundation by it, but while satisfying our nostalgia of the perhaps golden era of Tangerine Dream albums, it is bringing a still fresh and bravely experimental Peter Baumann into our living room. Or wherever one may be listening to Machines of Desire...

Frankly, one was not expecting this degree of integrity from an electronic musician staging a comeback - but there we have it, instead of embarking on a forced-sounding and, as in the case of some continuously active big names like Jarre, near-desperate riding of the waves of current mainstream electronica... we have a genuine through-and-through Peter Baumann album in 2016.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A third breath of Oxygene

The third installment of what has become by now the Oxygene trilogy was released on 2 December.

What made the first Oxygene enduring and extraordinary, even to ears coming across its fluid soundscapes 40 years later, was the fact that in many ways it placed itself outside the language of, albeit early, mainstream electronic music. It was eminently different with its other-wordly, yet accessible, soundscapes and fluid, bubbling, ever-changing structures.

Oxygene 2 was somewhat different, with synth-pop and dance music inflections. The third album cannot escape the compulsion of delving into utterly mainstream and utterly popular sub-genres of electronica.

Its opening is surprising, and surprisingly pleasing, with its scintillating sonic fragments and melodic elements that pop in and out of the sound stage.

The phased vintage string machine pads are present in various places in the album, vintage white noise sweeps and percussion elements, and even the instantly recognizable Elka Synthex (which made Rendez-Vous so magnificent sounding) makes an appearance a few times.

There is pleasing amount of experimentation, there are tracks that sound as if arpeggiators' patterns were chopped randomly to pieces and the melodic fragments bubble up unpredictably from the depth of closing and opening filters.

However, the predictable appearance of in-your-face electronic dance music tracks are quite jarring again. The lush soundscapes being suspended by trendy thumping of not only predictable, but terribly banal and already over-used, beat patterns is not exactly a positive effect. There is Jarre inventiveness at work, but the cliched drum patterns are just too... cliched to ignore.

As with Oxygene 2, the complete changes in mood and direction with much too ordinary dancey interludes manage to utterly ruin the otherwise cohesive flow of the album.

The changes in dynamics and effervescence is not a problem, even the first album had its gear shifts that were perfectly blended with the other tracks - but it would be great to hear any intriguing or innovative spins on mainstream electronica, instead the very tired deja-entendu patterns.

As someone remarked about the deplorable Theo & Thea album some years ago, it would be good to leave the forays into dance electronica to those who do it best - and with innovative ideas.

Otherwise, if we discount the jarring (and unfortunately jarringly banal) outings into EDM territory, Oxygene 3 is again quite a remarkable achievement with eminently state-of-the-art technology behind it.

It is quite endearing, that Jarre in 2016 can still stay fresh and full of ideas, and we tend to take for granted the not everyday feast of being able to keep up to speed with the exponential increase (and at extremely fast pace) of electronic sound producing software and hardware.

It sets an example to many electronic musicians who not only get stuck in their ways, but even start out with genre cliches and are are completely in the grips of the technology that they choose to use.

Imaginative, ever-changing, fluid and surprising in many places - Oxygen 3 delivers. If only we could somehow make abstraction of the intrusions of off-the-shelf EDM sonorities that pop up in a few places...