Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Tangerine Dream—
Phaedra


Released 1974 on Virgin
The Seth Man, June 2000ce
In 1981, I believed this to be the trippiest album I had heard in my life. I came to this conclusion after I traded in a pile of second rate space rock like “Oxygene,” “Video Magic” and all the solo Vangelis I owned and plumped the proceeds towards the then-recently released T-Dream “70-80” box set. It included nothing off “Electronic Meditation,” and side one was a quick sampler of “Alpha Centauri,” “Zeit” and “Atem” too brief to give me any real impressions of their formidable qualities at the time. But side two included the first and last tracks off “Phaedra,” and they were so out there I immediately scored the entire album soon afterwards. This was Tangerine Dream’s first release on Virgin that heralded the beginning of a major shift in their musical direction and it was a scenario played out over and over again by almost all progressive bands of the seventies. As time began to slip closer and closer into the eighties, newer keyboard and recording technologies would see these same bands (all of whom had previously lumbered through earlier LPs with freakstorms of mellotron, organ and early VCS3 synthesizers) tone down entirely, change to overt pop or zip through the stratosphere on their battery of ‘improved’ equipment that altogether changed the sound and feeling of their keyboard-based overcast mantras into wimped-out luxury Yamaha, Roland or birotron hurdy-gurdy doldrums. But “Phaedra” was the only place where the presence of sequencing synthesizers were used in harmony with the mellotrons and previous keyboards that created space-outs as lush and epic as some of their later Ohr pieces. It did begin a trend where T-Dream’s sequencer use would become so relied on that by the late-seventies, Trouser Press’ satirical “Believe It Or Don’t!” column featured a report of the world’s longest concert: the one where Tangerine Dream forgot to unplug their sequencer weeks after a concert!

“Phaedra” features an Edgar Froese blue and grey painting on the cover, and it captures the overall mood of this synthesizer and mellotron-dominated album: mysterious and diffusive. And the gatefold features ten further Froese psychedelic, light show blob paintings, one of them a disturbing photograph of his then young son, Jerome drowning in a sea of maroon and blue ectoplasm. The title track is a group composition, taking up side one in its entirety as pulsating and diffusive synthesizers emerge. Then, their brand new sequencer starts up all rigid and echoed as crystal synthesizer patches pass by, twinkling like stars. Soon, only the sequencer remains and mutates into the dominating role as mellotrons waft in and out. Then a three-way mellotron/Moog/sequencer cross talk builds then falls away, leaving Froese playing a repeating surf guitar riff to nowhere as the sequencer returns, picking up speed and pinning you to an undetermined axis in space. Plenty of synthesizer tunnelvision ensues, all trancey and dominated by the unswerving sequencing. As it funnels into inner space, low, low moog chords rumble as lightly touched, reverberated synths dance with further electronics. VCS3 frills and modulated sizzle-Moog appear, and the sequencer labyrinth becomes higher pitched and slowly speeds up, followed by more knob-twiddling sizzling and it’s quickly becoming a dance on the edge of a precipice...on and on until it dissolves into a galaxy of atomic particles and all is “aaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.” All that is left is a desolate universe of unearthly caws in the echoed distance, looming closer and closer until the majesty and power of Froese’s mellotron creates a hymnal at the beginning of the universe, a wonderously huge choral that is accompanied by echoed, singly hit chords that operate more like marimbas. The ending sequence is a mellotron-dominated swell-out depicting a deserted beachscape of power, beauty and neglected hope. Then a final coda of mellotrons draw the curtain…until a delayed resurfacing where schoolchildren can be heard playing on a sunny day through the opposite side of a puddle. The classical Greek myth of Phaedra, daughter of Minos, dying by her own hand after her love was rejected by her stepson, Hippolytus, was one of pure tragedy. But leave it to T-Dream to wind up stressing a hopeful end with a slight return of children’s voices as though representative of her two surviving sons.

Side two is broken into three pieces: “Mysterious Semblance At the Strand of Nightmares”, “Movements of A Visionary” and “Sequent C’.” “Mysterious” is just that: all massed mellotron storm clouds with VCS3 knob-twiddling in a place where the only rhythms are amplified sequencers or carbonated synth-fizzing. The opening goes on until it even slips into a phrase from the opening track of “A Clockwork Orange,” all swelling and phase-shifted beyond all reasonable-ness. Perfect. “Movements of A Visionary” is full of synthesizer exercises evocative of crabs scuttling across a huge ocean bed, whorls of sand and sea dust kicked up by the shuddering electro-vibe. “Sequent C’” is the finale, wistful but not entirely sad, and winds up diffusing itself into eternity in the fade. And yet, something even stranger underlies all of second side -- it was accidentally mastered backwards.