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Michael Rother Redux

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Monday, April 28, 2008

By Andy Beta



In Ben Sisario’s recent New York Times obituary for Kraftwerk/ NEU!/ La Dusseldorf drummer Klaus Dinger, who passed away on March 20th (from irony of ironies for a drummer, heart failure), he notes how Dinger complained about the tag of “motorik” being applied to his telltale beat: “That sounds more like a machine, and it was very much a human beat,” Dinger clarifies. Steady though it could be on record, Dinger’s tom hits were indeed decidedly less Autobahn automaton, closer kin to that of an ecstatic Paleolithic man making two-footed jumps and clubbing the earth with both hands simultaneously.

Such thuds provided the perfect foil to his Neu! counterpart, guitarist Michael Rother, which Rother himself noted in a 1998 interview with Perfect Sound Forever. “The tension of bringing together incompatible elements is what fascinated people with Neu!” he quipped right around the time that bootlegs of Neu!’s bottled-lightning albums (1,2, and 3) were invigorating a new generation of ears (as they did for Johnny Rotten in the Seventies and Sonic Youth in the Eighties, so it was for Chicago post-rockers in the Nineties). Rother’s glassy guitar spirals — a stunning amalgam of Chopin, Hendrix and the mesmeric Arab music he heard as a kinder in Karachi, Pakistan — served as the melodic core for three of Germany’s most groundbreaking acts (Kraftwerk, NEU! and Harmonia) and over the discographies of all three, Rother and guitar worked to bridge irreconcilable conflicts between melody and rhythm, man and machine, earth and heaven, his music informing acts as diverse as Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante and the entire Kompakt roster.

Those incandescent sparks between opposing polarities made it seem in contrast that Rother’s own solo efforts from the years following 1975 (Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler, Katzenmusick and Fernwärme) were too placid and unconflicted, new age and not punk enough. Rather than the unstable chemical reaction between Rother and Dinger that powered Neu!’s motorik pulse (Brian Eno once deemed it the most crucial rhythm of the Seventies, alongside those perpetuated by James Brown and Fela Kuti), Rother’s solo work instead proffers a glimpse at utopia. (Oddly enough, when separated from Rother, Dinger’s work in La Dusseldorf mellowed, as he too sought a communal ideal on albums like Viva).

“Working as a solo artist comes pretty close to the working method of a writer or a sculptor,” Rother stated in the same interview, adding that “you also carry the psychological burden and the responsibility all by yourself.” Which is not to say that he acted alone. Together with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit and producer Conny Plank, such sonic telepathy and unified vision makes Rother’s four recent stateside reissues feel relevant in these incompatible times.

No longer collaborating with the likes of Dinger, Ralf and Florian, or Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius, Rother’s guitar finally had space to radiate outwards. Liebezeit, more the mannered machinist than the manic thuds of Dinger, gives buoyancy and lift to already airy motifs, smoothly accelerating the music to more-rarefied strata. As they infuse Rother’s 1976 debut, Flammende Herzen, these (for lack of a better term) inspirational melodies are at their most romantic. The title track itself (translation “Flaming Hearts”) wears its, well, heart on the sleeve. The insertion of a C# minor amid the E and B major chords casts a bittersweet twinge to the proceedings, even as the song accelerates and ascends.

Emotional levity on an otherwise instrumental record strummed Teutonic heartstrings, to where Flammende sold more than the first three Neu! albums combined. Such success led Rother to decline a collaborative offer from fan David Bowie (who nevertheless named an album after his fave Neu! track “Hero”) and instead refine his sound for 1978’s Sterntaler. While it treads similar sonic territory as its predecessor, keyboards and vibraphones begin to edge into the mix. “Sterntaller” itself arises amid twinkling bloops, transforming from Brothers Grimm whimsy (the title was taken from a Grimm tale) into something as majestic as Der Ring des Nibelungen by track’s end.

Katzenmusick
(a pun for both caterwauling and Rother’s love of cats), with its skyward cover art, is arguably the apex of the series, if only because of Rother’s laser-like intent on crafting an album from a handful of cycling motifs, so that it works as a composite suite, each band of music alternating between motorik and ambient, wholly balanced between the autobahn and landschaft. Guitar lines shoot towards the horizon then U-turn and run backwards through the tape machines, seamlessly blending into Liebezeit’s timekeeping via Plank, whom Rother esteemed “had a tremendous sensitivity for the music and psychological fine feeling.”

That said, Rother took over the production and engineering duties for 1981’s Fernwärme, which despite a literal name of “far-heating” feels darker, chillier, more monochromatic. Continuing the trend of previous albums, Rother sets his guitar aside for Farfisa Soundmakers and Marshall Time Modulators. One of only three songs to feature six-string, the poignant, Goethe-referencing “Erlkönig” (whose melodic themes would be expanded into stage music) picks out a capo-ed melody in C-minor before shifting into a grandiose G-major and F with both human and mechanical metronome melding to urge the music heavenwards. For a few resplendent seconds, one hovers far above such terrestrial concerns.

 

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