Human beat, motorik city

Pub date May 20, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

There is probably no more stellar act of connect-four in popular music than Michael Rother’s Flammende Herzen (Radar/Water, 1977), Sterntaler (Skyclad/Water, 1978), Katzenmusik (Skyclad/Water, 1979), and Fernwärme (Polydor/Water, 1982). After a childhood that was equal parts Chopin, Pakistan, and stints as a member of Kraftwerk, Neu!, and — along with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius — Harmonia, Rother knew how fly solo from the get-go, reaching the realm of the sublime every time.

In the liner notes for Water’s recent reissue of Flammende Herzen, Sam Grawe of San Francisco instrumentalists Hatchback and Windsurf deems the album a "motorik All Things Must Pass," a wise music lover’s comparison that touches on the recording’s status as a glorious debut venture and its all-too-rare (in popular music, at least) quality of blessed warmth. In interviews, Rother has viewed solo music as an isolated creative endeavor along the lines of writing or sculpting, while claiming group efforts involve members collaborating to help one another overcome individual artistic obstacles. But on Flammende Herzen‘s title track, he required help from producer Conny Plank to realize his ideas about the values of simplicity and repetition and turn his love of silence into music. From there, their glorious course was set.

Rother devotees have their favorites among his first four efforts. Mine is Sterntaler, where his love of Jimi Hendrix’s "Star Spangled Banner" might be most apparent. Like a German Hendrix, Rother mines purity from guitar distortion, though in place of Hendrix’s mangled American blues, his guitar forges onward and skyward through introspective yet anthemic tunes such as equally epic "Stromlinieun" and the title track. Others prefer the quieter friend-of-felines touch of Katzenmusik, which pairs a gorgeous Rother cover photo of a plane’s vapor trail with a dozen morphing variations of a melodic theme. The black sheep might be Fernwärme, which finds Rother venturing away from Plank’s production and Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s more mathematical and truly motorik take on Neu!’s propulsive heartbeats into darker, lonelier realms not far from the forlorn new world occupied by Joe Meek’s Globbots.

Outside his role in Neu!, many people have primarily known Rother as the guy who, according to legend, turned down an offer from David Bowie to contribute to Bowie’s Heroes (Rykodisc, 1977). (Rother has suggested that Bowie’s management and record label prevented the pairing.) But thanks to Water’s re-releases, the Russian label Lilith’s recent reissues of Harmonia’s fresh and clean Musik von Harmonia (Brain, 1974) and golden-honeyed Deluxe (Brain, 1975) — and Kompakt artist Justus Köhncke’s ambitious all-electronic cover of Flammende Herzen‘s "Feuerland" — Rother’s music is reaching new ears. It sounds as modern now as it did when it was created. Blue rains, flaming hearts, sun wheels, streamlines, and silver linings are timeless.