In the ’70s krautrock canon, Neu!, Amon Duul, and Can are renowned for their dramatic narratives, while Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk enjoy somewhat of a commercial presence; meanwhile, pioneering ambient duo Dieter Moebius and Hans Joachim Roedelius, a/k/a Cluster, mostly get the shaft. Indulge in their catalog, and you’ll be rewarded with a rich and varied experience, from the grand, relaxed Grosses Wasser (1979) to the sweet, lighthearted Apropos Cluster (1990)—they explored the ambient realm more extensively than Brian Eno, their most famous collaborator. Many of Cluster’s live and extended studio tracks meticulously survey a musical idea at length, later engaging in minor variations: a link they provided back to the early minimalist composers and a bridge to later techno singles. Praise or blame them for fathering electronica genres (IDM, trance, trip-hop), performers (Aphex, Moby), and labels (Fax, Kompakt). Even the pop electronics of their side project, Harmonia (with Neu!’s Michael Rother), might be linked to new wave’s birth, while the harsh electronics of their first two albums helped hatch industrial music. Top that, Ash Ra Tempel.
But after a 1996 tour, they took a 10-year hiatus (their friendship supposedly turned frosty), only re-emerging last year, first with Harmonia and now with Cluster itself. They’ve returned stateside for a tour that kicked off here, headlining a sold-out show for the fifth annual No Fun Festival, appropriately pegged to electronic music. A mini–record mart set up at the Knitting Factory sported only one Cluster album (Apropos), though—sadly understandable given their catalog of expensive imports and out-of-print items.
With opening bands and a crowd that could figuratively/literally be their offspring, the pair appeared for their late-night performance presiding over their synths, mixers, and CD-J units like academics experimenting, which they kinda were. They stared poker-faced at their gadgets, never taking their sight off each other, miles away while on the same stage: Roedelius mixed sounds and added austere synth passages, while Moebius contributed strange rhythms and distant clamoring. Sonically, the Cluster pair doesn’t mesh exactly, but crafted interesting contrasts nonetheless.
A “greatest non-hits” revue isn’t their style, so they played a pair of 20-minute improvs. First up was an evolving travelogue odyssey that wound its way from distant space into the murk of a swampy bog, mirroring their recent live CD, Berlin 2007. An orchestral wash grew and meshed with ghostly ambient waves, overcome by a military beat, zooming synth, and dripping sounds. Sonic apparitions drifted, dotted by stray vibraphones, tailing off into bells. Telegraph beeps tangled with shrill chugging noises before dissolving into a slow, clomping beat and, later, stray gurgling. Whistles and bird sounds disappeared into a distant orchestra, overcome by frog noises. Distant transmission noises over a subduing bass tone were replaced by further gurgling over a jazz beat, ending with stately synth and a trail of screaming mini-ghosts.
By comparison, their second song was much more sedate, with distant chugging, more stray bells, solemn bell-tolling, ambient piano, and the occasional sonic bird. After eager applause, the two conferred briefly (their first contact onstage) before delivering an appropriately late-night mood on the 10-minute encore.
Soon, Cluster will cap off their triumphant return with a new album— “whenever possible in the next future,” as Roedelius puts it. Hopefully, you won’t have to scour eBay for it.