Among the first to see the emotional possibilities of electronic music, Tangerine Dream crafted the holy music of the future.
Nothing about Tangerine Dream is ever concise. The kings of the Berlin School of kosmische musik at the dawn of the ‘70s, Tangerine Dream specialized in side-length knob-twiddling, eschewing the jams of Düsseldorf colleagues like Can and Neu! for the quasi-spiritual properties of electronic instruments’ capacity to sustain minimal variation. This approach lends itself to recording without much of a plan or much need to endlessly revise, which may explain why the group’s discography stretches well past 100 releases of records that could easily be dismissed as the same batch of barely shaped New Age noise.
But to see Tangerine Dream in this way would miss the enduring elegance of their best work. Among the first to see the emotional possibilities of electronic music beyond the compositional and mechanical theories, Tangerine Dream crafted the holy music of the future, chiming warbles and peaceful waves of sonic bliss that offered a counterpoint to the harsher noise of the technological age. Their most widely celebrated period involved their work as one of the early signees of Virgin Records, and the first half of the band’s tenure under the label has been given souped-up new life in the form of In Search of Hades, the latest work of restoration and preservation by Steven Wilson, prog’s greatest curator. By far Wilson’s most ambitious remastering job, the box set covers 16 staggering discs of Edgar Froese and Co.’s sublime whirring, not only on seminal albums but a number of live recordings and even a previously unreleased soundtrack.
Of the studio albums, not much needs to be said. Nearly all of the official LPs within are classics, starting with Phaedra, widely-accepted as Tangerine Dream’s masterpiece. The opening title track lays out all the strengths of the group and none of the filler, 18 minutes of alternately elegant and surprisingly nervy synths that lay down the blueprint for futuristic thriller scores with the percolating main synth set against ominous moaning and chirping diagnostic beeps. The album’s second side separates out these ambient and propulsive elements and further sharpens each aspect of the band’s sound. Rubycon, a single track split to fit on sides of vinyl, manages to combine medieval classical music (synths mimic the sound of a men’s choir), analog approximations of animal sound and the group’s pioneering nighttime chase music into one baffling fantasia. Stratosfear is synthetic pastoral, while Force Majeure hints at the cheesy sound the band would frequently display in the ‘80s but also sounds about five years ahead of the game on 8-bit music.
These are great albums, and they sound absolutely pristine as remixed and remastered by Wilson, who by now has perfected his ability to bring out all the subtle aspects of even the densest compositions while respecting the original balance of instruments and without lapsing into the aggressive compression common to remastering. Each album comes with considerable bonus material, from single edits to b-sides. The greatest extra, though, is the presence of Oedipus Tyrannus, the score of the BBC film of the same name. More abstract and unnerving than even many of the group’s own later scores, Oedipus Tyrannus is the sound of water dripping into a cave lake, of bitter winds howling on the moors, though it can also pivot into neo-baroque court music.
Also taking up considerable room in the box set are a number of live sets. Some, like Ricochet and Encore, are established live albums that are part of the Tangerine Dream canon. But others just give testimony to how formidable and crucial a live act the group was and remains, with their improvisational, wandering style ideally suited to the unpredictability of the stage. Many of the live tracks do not even have names, instead titled after the venues and dates of the performances as the group drifts through lilting pastoral, squelching cosmic odyssey and twitchy cyberthriller in real time, flowing even more imperceptibly between styles than they did in the studio. The heavily bootlegged 1974 “Rainbow Concert,” included here with professional mixing and crisp sound quality, is an especially arresting demonstration of this fluidity on-stage, and it may well stand as the new definitive Tangerine Dream live document.
Make no mistake, 16 discs of material is a tall order, and no one is sitting around for the full day it would take to listen to everything at once. But ironically, having so much Tangerine Dream lumped together into one giant soup of analog synthesizers makes it easier than ever to spot the distinctiveness of their loose songwriting, and to appreciate all the more just how much space they could explore in their sound. Steven Wilson, such an accomplished musician in his own right and arguably at the height of his own powers right now, may go down as even more important to the preservation of progressive music than as a contributor to its ongoing canon. His remastering work here maintains his exceptional bar of quality, and Universal’s sprawling, loving vault raid is the definitive package to date of one of the foundational bands of electronic music.