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Michael Rother - Flammende Herzen / Sterntaler / Katzenmusik / Fernwärme

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Artist: Michael Rother

Album: Flammende Herzen / Sterntaler / Katzenmusik / Fernwärme

Label: Water

Review date: Sep. 10, 2008

Michael Rother’s music is immediately identifiable. The sparse production allowing a few instruments to etch a thin, gold leaf frieze. The thump of Jaki Liebezeit’s supple drumming, a warm pulse that seems to emanate with the same organic metronome of a purr or a heartbeat. But mainly, it’s the melodies gushing from Rother’s guitars as if refracted through splintered diamonds. They always seem to sing the same song.

All crystalline trails and chiming notes, Rother’s guitars (and there always seems to be a small multitude of them) are dulcet even when slathered in distortion. Each line stirs a hive of harmonies. Shuffle the tracks from Water’s welcome reissue of Rother’s first four solo albums and it’s hard to pin most of them to a specific album.

Beginning with 1976’s Flammende Herzen, Rother works in a singular, almost solitary mode. These discs are obvious outgrowths of his prior, better known work: namely his three-album run of zero-degree regeneration with Klaus Dinger as Neu! and his "supergroup" excursions with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius as Harmonia. Rother’s solo music in part weds the dew-dappled tranquility found on Neu!’s final, 1975 album and the radiant exuberance of Harmonia’s own swan song of the same year, De Luxe. Stripping Neu! of drummer/vocalist/provocateur Dinger’s ecstatic savagery and scaling down Harmonia’s swirling constellations to a few points of light, Rother seems to reveal his own side of each conversation. Gathering together another all-star Krautock team – Can’s Liebezeit, Neu!/Cluster producer Conrad Plank – Rother outputs four LPs of miniature majesty.

Flammende Herzen and its 1977 follow-up Sterntaler are brother albums. The serialism of both covers – the former finds Rother appearing full-frontal, the latter his head shown darkly in profile – echoes Rother’s recursive fretwork. Ruminating over a seemingly finite set of notes, Rother manages a bounty of wistful tunes carried by his fluorescent guitar lines. Reducing Neu!’s motorik thrust to a cruising altitude glide, Liebezeit provides a level, driving force underneath Rother’s electric calligraphy. Having sold more than all three Neu! albums combined, Flammende Herzen is naturally expanded upon in Sterntaler. Using the first album’s title as a kind of departmental ID under his name, Rother crafts a more muscular edition of the debut. But its penultimate track, the tellingly not-German-titled "Fontana di Luna," finds Rother opening up to other planes. Focusing on the ebb instead of the flow, its ghostwebs of shimmering vibraphones linger instead of spiral upwards for a heroic soar. 1979’s Katzenmusik finds Rother continuing on such ventures.

Progressively withdrawing to the riverside hamlet of Forst, where he once shared a house with his Harmonia bandmates, Rother’s music loses a bit of its linearity with each successive album. The guitars still weep luminous melancholy and the notion of serialism is now openly applied, as Rother crafts 12 consecutively-numbered "Katzenmusik" variations. But here, Rother’s glimmering striplights of song are now enveloped in a membrane of grey, vaporous synth. Liebezeit’s rhythms are more impressionistic, even locking into discoid grooves. Clean horizons give way to furrowed topography.

1981’s Fernwärme is Liebezeit’s last album with Rother. Plank is already gone. Instead of his usual stacks of overdubbed guitars limning sweetly, Rother strums vaguer chords. Throbbing with electronic activity and saturated with hazy frequencies, the album is primarily transitional. Pulses pop as tonal clouds drift by. The ’80s would soon catch up with Rother and, unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t treat him terribly well. Rother himself reissued these four discs a few years back, though at that time they came with perfunctory "dance" remixes tacked on. As we’re reminded by these Water reissues, each presenting Rother’s original LP with no extras except interview-based liner notes, the perfectly appointed, short-lived microcosmos of Rotherland sure was some kind of Eden.

By Bernardo Rondeau

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