A Brief History of German Krautrock Supergroup, Harmonia

Even Angela Merkel would have to get down.
By    November 12, 2015


Will Schube is still mourning the death of Helmut Schmidt. 

In 1971 Dieter Moebius * and Hans Joachim Roedlius bolted from Berlin to the isolated countryside of Forst. The duo — more commonly known as Cluster — searched the forest for the warm refuge of inspiration and isolation. Building a studio, they continued to pioneer their unique sound of ambient krautrock. In 1973, Michael Rother of Neu! visited the Forst commune in hopes of convincing the duo to join his band on an upcoming tour. When the trio began to play, they discovered that the music created was wholly distinct from the two projects. Unwilling to dismiss such fruitful jam sessions, the separate parties said goodbye to old entities and became one: Harmonia, one of the great German bands of the 20th century.

I had heard of Can and I had heard of Neu! but Harmonia was until very recently an unknown band to me. This was an error. Harmonia released two albums during their four year tenure, but the tremendous re-issue just put out by Grönland records comes with a few extra treats. In addition to Musik von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975), the box set features a live record (Live 1974), an album with Brian Eno (Tracks and Traces), and a demo-ish record titled Documents 1975. These releases are an absolute joy—playful, innovative, catchy, and weird. The musical connections they forged, and the groups they continue to influence, play as important a role in Harmonia’s legacy as the music itself.

Brian Eno visited the band just before they broke up. They managed to squeeze an album out of the fractured enterprise shortly prior to Eno’s departure to Bowieland, where he produced Low and “Heroes” with The Thin White Duke. These two albums are distinctly different from Bowie’s preceding discography, as both showcase the minimalistic German undertones the Forst boys were innovating. Dig some more and you get to Robert Fripp, who played on “Heroes” and recorded music with Eno under the moniker Fripp & Eno. He’s also the one consistent member of King Crimson, everyone’s favorite Kanye sample source. Follow another path and you get to Neu!. Throw Can in there and eventually Kraftwerk shows up. If you follow the thread long enough, you land upon a not-half-bad Eno-produced Coldplay record. The history of German krautrock grew up with Harmonia. Their influence was vast, but here’s the key: The world around them never outweighed the music they created during their brief run.

Early German rock music has a tendency to feel academic and experimental. Less fun than important. More statement than music. Harmonia found a perfect balance between the exploratory and the joyous. Their tracks often build around slow moving ideas that erupt in excitement. The word ‘pastoral’ gets tossed around when critics describe Harmonia, but Musik von Harmonia and Deluxe sound much more fluid than the peaceful stasis inspired by a countryside walk. Surrounding shouldn’t be mistaken for sound. The place doesn’t mean the music must mirror. Instead, Harmonia’s records tend to function like seasons in passing. Deluxe begins with the warm summer synthesizers of the title track. It becomes immediately clear how influential Brian Eno was on these dudes and they on him. “Walky Talky” pulses and meanders. Playful synths turn icy and guitars layer in a way that likely helped inform your favorite Radiohead album.

What becomes increasingly clear when exploring Harmonia’s discography—especially the studio recordings—is how many different musical landmarks they helped pioneer. Krautrock, of course, but also early tastes of synthesizer experiments. Video game electronics say hello for a quick second, sandwiched between electro-acoustic orchestral lushness (M83 and friends) and primordial math rock. Their music touches many strange terrains, but it never feels purposefully avant or “interesting.” This stuff likes to play.

Listening to these works is more than an introduction to a seminal and overlooked group. It’s a reminder that the best music lives long after its perceived expiration date. Through peers, influence, and sheer lasting power, Harmonia feels as real as it did in 1970s Germany. The live records and songs with Eno require more work than Deluxe or Musik, but they are all well worth some time. Next time you blast Bowie in your car or don’t turn off Coldplay when they come on KROQ, remember that Harmonia is only one step away.

* Shortly before this box set was released, Dieter Moebius passed away. The world lost a great and interesting musician just before he was to receive a long overdue reintroduction. There’s not much else to say, it just feels weird to write about his music without mentioning his passing.

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