50 years Tangerine Dream – 5 albums you should listen to

As I never tire to mention, I’m a big fan of the German electronic band Tangerine Dream and am heavily influenced by their work and their embracing of different styles and re-inventing themselves over the decades. Founded 50 years ago today and having released far over 100 albums, soundtracks and compilations, it’s hard to choose only a few favorites, or to tell anyone not familiar with the band where they should start listening. And although I’m doomed to fail, I’ll try anyway and present five Tangerine Dreams albums you should listen to – from classic times to more modern works.

Tangerine Dream through the years

29 September 1967 – Edgar Froese starts a new band called Tangerine Dream, named after the line “Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies” from the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. At first a typical experimental Krautrock band with guitar, flute and drums, Tangerine Dream (TD) evolved over the years to the quintessential electronic band and to the founding fathers of the so-called Berlin School of electronic music (together with artists like Klaus Schulze, who was one of TD’s first drummers, Ash Ra Tempel and Manuel Göttsching).

The space on this blog is not enough to elaborate on TD’s history, personnel changes and different music styles they’ve embraced over the years (Wikipedia is pretty good on that if you’d like to know more). So here are five albums from most phases of the band, some of my favorites and good starting points if you want to check out the band’s work.

Zeit (1972)

Their third album after “Electronic Meditation” and “Alpha Centauri”. It’s hard to say which one from the first years is essential. To me “Zeit” shows parts of the more experimental (sometimes rather noisy) TD from the beginning, but also already traces of what’s to come (after the second transitional album “Atem” in 1973) when they fully embraced electronic instruments.

Subtitled “Largo In Four Movements”, the four free flowing, meditative songs on “Zeit” are rather dark, but never creepy. Reminiscent of earlier Pink Floyd, Julian Cope described it as “their most difficult album”, but I tend to disagree, as “Electronic Meditation” (and in parts “Alpha Centauri” as well) has much more noise elements, while “Zeit” is calmer, though gloomy.

Phaedra (1974)

After 1973’s “Atem”, this album marks the beginning of what I (and a lot of other fans) would call the classic period. In the band’s own terms it’s the beginning of the “Virgin Years” (after the “Pink Years” of the first four albums).

“Phaedra,” TD’s first release on the still new Virgin label, marks the band’s first full-fledged use of synthesizers (a lot of Moog) and sequencers, and the beginning of the Berlin School of electronic music. It also was their first hit album, reaching number 15 in the UK album charts with six-figure sales, and getting gold discs in seven countries. But it also showed that often the prophet is not accepted in his hometown: In their native Germany it only sold 6,000.

You can still hear traces from the “Pink Years” – otherworldly drones and sound effects, but with its sequencer patterns and tighter structure, this album sends you into a trance like none of the first ones could.

The follow-up albums “Rubycon” and “Ricochet” are in the same style and I wouldn’t know which one of these to prefer if I could only take one of them to the proverbial island. And then there’s…

Stratosfear (1976)

…1976’s “Stratosfear” that added some more rock elements (especially in the title track), combining acoustic and electronic instruments to a tight sounding blend. If I had to choose one and only one favorite album, I guess this one might be it (although I always have second and third thoughts… 😉 ).

The rocking guitar and organ on the title track, and the mystical flute over sequencer patterns on “3AM At The Border Of The Marsh From Okefenokee” are captivating genius.

I vividly remember listening to “Stratosfear” with a thunderstorm coming in. That showed me how powerful music can be in the perfect moment – the music complemented the approaching dark skies and the electricity in the air. In general Tangerine Dream (and some other artists like Art Of Noise, Yello, Alan Parsons and others) showed me that you can mix up different elements, make very emotive (and not at all “cold”) music with synthesizers and bring this in harmony with acoustic instruments as well.

Cyclone (1978)

Ah, the controversial one 😉 Another first for Tangerine Dream: Going even more Pink Floyd (a band Edgar Froese always admired), they added vocals and flute by Steve Jolliffe and created an album that still is discussed sometimes heatedly by fans.

As far as I see it, there are mainly two sides: The ones who like the addition of vocals (especially mystical, dark ones as can be heard here), and the ones who utterly hate vocals on TD songs). And although a lot of fans don’t like it, “Cyclone” is TD’s fifth best selling album in the UK.

You might have guessed already that I do like it. The dark, mysterious and quite melancholy atmosphere speaks endlessly to me. And for all who don’t like the vocals there’s still the 20 minute long, very typical Berlin School instrumental “Madrigal Meridian”.

And luckily (for the friends of vocals) Tangerine Dream didn’t let the grumbling of fans keep them from working with singers every now and then, producing other great vocal songs on “Tyger” (“Tyger”, “London”, “Smile”) and later albums (although I tend to like the songs on “Cyclone” and “Tyger” better).

Le Parc (1985)

Although older fans often bemoan TD’s turn towards more pop structured, less experimental, shorter songs, I always just saw these as another phase in the life of a band that didn’t stand still and always evolved. And although TD’s music from the mid-1980’s on might not be as mystical and cosmic, it often still is fully imaginative and unusual. Definitely far from mainstream pop.

1985’s “Le Parc” shows this mix: Shorter, more structured arrangements mix with some evocative, atmospheric sounds. Inspired by parks around the world, this album can take you on a journey to different countries, if you let it. I guess this is one of the albums where every fan has his different favorites. While some like the typical 1980’s TV theme feel of the title song (used for the short-lived series “Streethawk”), others tend more to the atmospheric tracks. My favorites are “Bois De Boulogne,” “Gaudi Park,” “Tiergarten,” “Zen Garden,” “Hyde Park” and “Yellowstone Park.”

Wow, that’s already five albums and we’re not even in the 1990’s yet…

Personally I lost track a bit after 1992, but am catching up slowly, and there are a lot of great albums like “Views From A Red Train,” “Turn Of The Tides” and “Finnegan’s Wake” to name just a few.

And I haven’t even touched the soundtracks or the live albums… (but that’s something for another article).

The Quantum Years

Shortly before Edgar Froese died in 2015, he started to draft the concept for another phase in the life of Tangerine Dream: The Quantum Years. Froese always was a philospher, using his music to convey ideas and emotions. And this new phase was going to do that with quantum physics and more.

His surviving team mates Thorsten Quaeshning, Hoshiko Yamane and Ulrich Schnauss are working to fulfill that vision, using Froeses’s drafts and ideas they discussed to produce new songs. All the while going a bit back to the roots, becoming more electronic and experimental, more Berlin School again, but still looking forward and producing in a modern style. From what I’ve heard so far on the Quantum Years releases like “Particles” and the “Quantum Key EP,” this is going to be a very exciting phase in the band’s journey. The new full album “Quantum Gate” is also released today to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary.

As far as I understand, Edgar Froese always wanted the band to live on after his death, and he once said there are hours of recorded material that can be released on dozens of albums after his death. I must say I quite like the idea of a band transcending its founding member(s) and living on as an idea, fostered by different people who are more the executors of this idea and vision than “just” musicians pushing their own agenda under a certain name.

Author: Chris Wirsig

Chris Wirsig enjoyed classical training on piano and saxophone, studied audio engineering at Munich’s SAE Technology College and has more than 15 years experience in music production. He has been writing songs since 1991 and contributed music for computer demos and commercial games throughout the 1990s. Apart from other music projects he started the acclaimed Electro Noire band no:carrier in 1995 and the Electronica/Chill-Out project Virtual Conformity in 2001. He worked as an editor for the musician’s magazine KEYS and founded the first German fair-trade record label, NovaTune. His latest works include music and sound fx for the acclaimed Top Ten iPad game “Alien Tribe 2”, the short mystery movie "20 Matches", the critically acclaimed no:carrier album “Wisdom & Failure”, and their EP of cover versions, "Ghosts Of The West Coast".

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