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Cluster - Qua

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Artist: Cluster

Album: Qua

Label: Nepenthe

Review date: Jul. 17, 2009

It’s easy to overstate Cluster’s influence. Yet, after just a casual dip into their discography, it’s hard not to come up hearing traces of their sound in most fields of electronic music. In comparison to their krautrock peers – though, unlike your Fausts and Neu!s, it’s nearly impossible to tell when the band is engaging with rock music -- and their most famous collaborator, Brian Eno, Cluster’s discography has tended towards a quasi-classical, austere sense of development. Qua, their latest work, is also their first studio release since 1994’s One Hour. Throughout, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius continue their dogged evolution without – thankfully, it should go without saying – too clear a sense of where it should go. Unlike dueling rock songwriters (à la Hüsker Dü), it is difficult to untangle Moebius’ and Roedelius’ respective contributions. Although the solo careers they financed with money from their Eno collaborations give a sense of their personalities in isolation, it’s unclear whether the sense of incompleteness that runs throughout the album is a deliberate strategy.

Qua is structured around pairs, sounds or structures that aren’t binaries, but also refuse to blend. True to its name, Qua is an admixture of ponderous and light, frivolous and highbrow, an album with one foot in a relatively solid past (hence the Latin) and another in an intangible future. At its most cheap and cheerful, Cluster makes a sound here that could be compared to zero-gravity Rugrats music – on “So Ney,” overlapping percussion and fluttering synths have the topheavy waddle of a toddler. At the other end of the album’s spectrum, kitchen-sink avant-garde noises scuff synth patches that bounce between stereo channels, effectively apostrophizing the cosmos and never quite touching upon anything solid (as in the five-minute drift of “Formalt.”) Recent live performances have had a similar infinity feel, with minimal rhythmic signposting and extended wooshing sounds that suggest a brutal solar wind rather than the serene bubbes of other cosmic-minded artists like Pete Namlook.

Despite all the doublings on the album, you don’t get the sense that Moebius and Roedelius have definitively branched away from one another but rather the feeling that they’re making their creative process less intuitive and more problematic for themselves. (Whether or not a deck of Oblique Strategies was involved is anyone’s guess.) As a result, the album hosts some of the strangest sonic juxtapositions Cluster’s ever attempted. Take the musique concrète-like deployment of a squeaky doorhinge, strung with the endless ticking of a hi-hat and set against neo-classical synth toodling on “Flutful.” The non-electronic sounds scattered throughout these sketches suggest a kind of doubling back on 20th century musical history — and with seven of Qua’s 17 tracks lasting less than two minutes, the album also has the aura of early electronic music studies, particularly Stockhausen’s. Too, Qua can sound more like careful studies of tones and textures interacting than the melodically satisfying story-songs of Zuckerzeit, for example, even as the band waxes contemporary with the newly scattershot approach with a Black Dice impersonation on blunt feedback collage “Diagon.”

As you may have guessed, Qua refuses to gel as an album – it’s a vivid listening experience, but a cold one. Part of the difficulty of reviewing this sort of record is that while expectations of Cluster coming out with a reputation-reinforcing record that bests the musicians they’ve influenced aren’t exactly high, it’s hard to escape from an inchoate feeling of suspended embarrassment for the band. It’s an irrational feeling, and the music, to its credit, sounds like it could have only been recorded by a group aware of their influence but eager to continue the spiel they began laying down long ago. But it’s a strange feeling to see a band who had, at their height, so effortlessly bridged a gap between popular music and the classical avant-garde implode their technique in a series of sometimes too-abrupt sketches. Cluster appears to be coming full circle back to the space music of their first, self-titled album, stacking acoustic and electronic space, and producing a serene but threatening realm of their own.

This is appreciably different from the busy sound of much current electronic music, with the muddy tendency to stack MIDI tracks Tetris-style in your software of choice. The graphical interface of production suites has a sound of its own, and while it’d be naive to think that Ableton had no role in this recording, Cluster are audibly attempting to construct songs where details emerge from negative space instead of being squeezed out between competing loops. This also means that the group has de-prioritized melody and other kinds of warmth in their music – Cluster has always rewarded patience, but Qua plays with scarcity. What makes understanding Qua such a slippery proposition is the play between the murkiness of the duo’s intentions and the clarity of the sounds. Is the listener being chided in a cryptic, icily reproachful way for not having done their homework or expecting kitsch? Whatever the case, Qua is, from a distance, a feat that slips in and out of relevance.

The strongest argument in favor of the album, then, would paint Cluster as phantom modernists – artists who, having established their own third way by drawing on divergent traditions, now insist on difficulty and strangeness-in-itself. The big weakness here is that the initial obscurity and chaos they present on Qua isn’t a portal to objectivity or a filter ensuring that only the select get to come to the party – difficulty is the pleasure in itself. They’re creating friction in a void, and it’s more formally admirable than pleasurable. The album’s last track, “Imtrerion,” is a shock, with its twisting, backmasked melodies that swirl around each other with a distant but tangible poignancy, and a reminder of the paths they didn’t take on Qua. It’s the sound of music almost floating out of its context.

By Brandon Bussolini

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