This hefty archival set should immediately intrigue any and all krautrock fanatics.
This hefty archival set should immediately intrigue any and all krautrock fanatics. Solo collects multi-instrumentalist and composer Michael Rother’s first four releases, as well as some soundtracks and raritites. Best known for his two then-recently-disbanded groups, Neu! and Harmonia!, Rother is certainly one of the primary figures of the movement. This is compounded by the fact that Jaki Liebezeit of Can drums on all the studio releases and the legendary Conny Plank produces the first three. Obviously, the star power and talent on display here is exemplary, but one listen through the material shows why these albums have never been canonized in the same way as Neu!, Tago Mago and Deluxe. It’s not that they’re terrible, but instead of the outlandish experiments of the core krautrock groups, Solo covers a five-year span where Rother was moving towards a more welcoming, agreeable sound.
These four albums show an almost linear progression away from the avant-leanings of Rother’s previous groups towards instrumental pop music. If you hold onto Rother as a key experimentalist, this box set is a slow descent into saccharinity. If you take his work at face value, it’s instead a move from a tense middle ground into harmonious bliss. Taking the latter view, 1977’s Flammende Herzen suffers in particular from an identity crisis. It’s the closest in sound and style to Neu!, and its close-but-not-quite relation to this sound gives an appearance of a cheap imitation. Liebezeit’s characteristically loose playing is absent; instead he does his best to approximate Klaus Dinger’s famed motorik repetitions, a baffling move from one of the era’s standout musicians.
The opening title track begins with a chorale-like guitar arrangement that unknowingly defines Rother’s solo style. Everything is melodic, harmonious and pleasing; like a rockist’s take on the slow movement from a Mozart piano sonata. The rigid drums eventually enter, and soaring guitar leads give the melody an opulence, but the reserved classicism never fades. The best track on Flammende is a fittingly deviant one, “Feuerland.” It’s more of a dirge, featuring some chilly keyboard lines and Liebezeit’s best drumming on the album. He seems more content playing with the push-and-pull of the downbeat, resulting in a more organic mix with Rother’s warm electronics.
Released the following year, Sterntaler continued on this path, arguably more forgettable due to the lost allure of a debut project. It’s a fine album, but ultimately easily lost in its surroundings. By ’79’s Katzenmusik, though, a clearer focus started to emerge. Most significantly, the coordination between Rother and Liebezeit is nearly seamless. Even small changes, like the varying 4/4 patterns in “Katzenmusik 5,” add a humanity to the music that was missing earlier. This is no longer a masked Liebezeit trying to play another role, but rather a fiercely individual drummer working in collaboration with an opposing style.
This merging of worlds is presented best in “Katzenmusik 8,” the album’s—and arguably the entire box set’s—immediate standout. Any connection to Neu!’s cheery repetition is replaced by an emotive take on ambient electronics. Filtering the characteristically simplistic harmonies through backwards guitars and plodding synths adds a necessary otherworldliness to the otherwise restrictive musical language, a problem that plagues prolonged listening of Solo. “Katzenmusik 8” is just as beautiful and expansive as Eno’s “The Big Ship,” and shows the clearer direction Rother would take going forward. Despite the rapid experimentalism often associated with this scene, this musician was clearly concerned with simple pleasures and listenability. It took him a few tries to nail down the balance, but the rewards are well worth reaping when he finally arrives at them.
Fernwärme, the final studio album in the set, is an immediate outlier, both for coming three years after the rapid combo of Rother’s first three releases as well as being the only album here he self-produced. It’s also the strongest effort in Solo. All pretenses of Rother trying to stack up against his predecessors and contemporaries has vanished, and instead a tuneful balladeer takes the reins. Rother focuses on slower tempos, with sweeping, melancholic melodies replacing the bounce of earlier albums. Liebezeit retreats a bit, and even when he is prominent, as in “Erlkoenig,” Rother’s minor-key laments win over. “Fortuna” and “Hohe Luft” offer some brighter moments within the album’s nocturnal feeling, and everything concludes with the reverent title track. Even though Rother continued his career well past this album, there is a resolute feeling here. His honing quest was complete, and finally Michael Rother made the succinct, addictive album he’d been circling around for close to a decade.
The soundtrack material follows the general musical language, just with a more spacious edge and eerier textures. The live tracks and remixes show a modern update on Rother’s sound, and help place this sound in a musical lineage. The remix of “Around the Lake” by The Jam’s Paul Weller connects Rother’s minimalist instrumentals to the impending synth-pop boom and also foreshadows LCD Soundsystem’s ecstatic repetitions. Both of these extraneous albums are brief and less of a statement than any of the studio material, so they inevitably pale in comparison. The vinyl box set is predictably pricey, so the cash-strapped should look instead at the CD version, which cuts Live & Remixes and is just around $30, or find the recently uploaded studio albums on streaming services.
The irony of this release is that the music might have a hard time finding a home: it’s too breezy for diehard fans of Rother’s previous work, but too forceful to fully fit in with a new age crowd; it’s too ambiguous to function as pop music, but too close to radio rock to be called minimalism. Regardless of where and with whom this music resonates, Solo tells a unique story about searching for perfection. Rother challenges our self-created need for innovation and novelty, aggressively deciding against these traits in favor of gradual coherence around a single idea.