1976 might be stamped in rock’s history books as the year punk swept the UK, but it found Brian Eno on a very different course. One year before, Eno’s 1975 album Discreet Music, a serene synthesiser piece inspired by a period spent bedridden, had demonstrated his commitment to what would soon be known as ambient. Now, Eno was bound for a studio in Forst, rural West Germany, at the invitation of who he had referred to as “the world’s most important rock band”, Harmonia.
The joint project of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Berlin’s Cluster and Neu! guitarist Michael Rother, Harmonia’s two albums to date, Musik Von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975) were among the best Krautrock had to offer, gentler than Can or Faust, but with their shimmering keyboards and mechanical rhythms, every bit as compelling.
That the fruits of the first session, collected as Harmonia ’76’s Tracks & Traces (GRONLAND) 3*, was not released until 1997 casts a little doubt on its quality. But while feeling somewhat sketch-like – this is evidently the sound of an improvisatory trio finding their common ground – there are fine moments here, from the languid synthesiser bubbles of “Welcome” to the gaping black hole kosmische of “Sometimes In Autumn”.
Rother soon split from Harmonia to go solo, but Brian Eno would reconvene with Roedelius and Moebius at producer Conny Plank’s studio in 1977. Joined by Can’s Holger Czukay and avant-garde composer Asmus Tietchens, the three-week session yielded not one, but two albums. The first, ‘Cluster & Eno’ (BUREAU B) 4* is crisper, with arrangements in tighter focus: “Wehrmut” wrings astonishing emotion out of minor-key synths, “One” is a mutant sitar raga that vacillates between melodies and Velvets-esque drone, and if “Ho Renomo” now reminds you of a mobile phone advert, it just shows how far ambient has seeped into the mainstream.
The second album from the sessions, 1978’s ‘After The Heat’ (BUREAU B) 4* – released as Eno Moebius Rodelius – feels quite different. In fact, it’s an Eno solo album in all but name. Good job, then, that it’s a good one. Desolate piano and droning synth pieces segue into funk-inflected art-rock, and Eno sings on three tracks – notably “The Belldog”, which, with its soaring vocal and squirming sequenced bass, is surely a track LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has spun a few times.
Three decades on and Roedelius and Moebius are still making music, touring with the revitalised Harmonia and working on solo material. Moebius’ newie, ‘Kram’ (KLANGBAD) 3* is somewhat patchy, prone to bouts of discordant proto-techno, but the likes of “Womit” remain firmly in the spirit of kosmische, a melding of crystal synths and gurgling bass that played quiet, or speaking-shakingly loud, has a transporting effect.