Phaedra is an album by Tangerine Dream
, released in 1974 on Virgin Records as the label's tenth LP. It was part of Virgin's early batch of unlikely commercial successes, reaching the top twenty on the UK album charts despite being utterly unlike anything else in the charts before or since. For Tangerine Dream it was a transitional album, combining the freeform ambient washes of their previous releases with the structured, pulsing electronic rhythms of their later albums. It introduced one of the group's trademark musical devices - an echoey, bouncy synth pulse, reminiscent of Pink Floyd
's 'One of These Days
' or, years later, Simple Minds
'Zeit' and 'Atem', their previous albums, had been released in 1972 and 1973. They were the culmination of the group's formless 'space music' period, the former a two-disc set containing one song per side, each song little more than a series of drones overlaid with lush sound effects. 'Phaedra' was a single disc, using a format then common in the prog rock world, in that it had one long piece on side one and some shorter pieces on the second side. As with Kraftwerk's contemporaneous 'Autobahn', the second side of 'Phaedra' is uninteresting and I will not write about it. The first side is the good side. The album was released on vinyl with a listed speed of 33rpm, although there was no compelling reason not to play it slower or faster, creating an instant remix.
The Listing of the Track Listing of V2010:
1.1 Phaedra (Franke, Froese, Baumann)
1.2 Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares (Froese)
1.2 Movements of a Visionary (Franke, Froese, Baumann)
1.2 Sequent C (Baumann)
"Thanks to all the people who gave us the background atmosphere to produce this album"
The vinyl version is worth buying second-hand; the cover is a metallic silver, and the inner gatefold sleeve has a set of garish psychedelic paintings - literally, paint daubings, perhaps inspired by the final minutes of '2001: A Space Odyssey' - by bandleader Edgar Froese.
In 1974 the band had stabilised into a lineup of Edgar Froese, the group's one constant, with Chris Franke and Peter Baumann on modular Moog and VCS3, woodwind, bass guitar, Farfisa organ, Mellotron, and lots of effects, particularly stereo delay. Technically the album is an impressive feat, the title track including an early and highly visible use of sequencers in the pop arena. In this respect the group were ahead of Kraftwerk, who still played their rhythm tracks by hand. Nonetheless it is noticeable that the sequenced sections are not electronically synchronised with anything else; it would be some time before the lock-step drum machines and electronic basslines of early-80s synth pop. Another point of interest was the decision to feed the Mellotrons through their synthesisers' filter banks, the filters taking the place of flexible, powerful wah-wah pedals. This practice was lost for several years until making a comeback in the 1990s, and several companies now produced standalone filter banks, the filter being the thing which gives classic analogue synthesisers much of their 'presence'.
'Phaedra' was recorded at Virgin Records' own recording studio, The Manor, and was noticeably deeper and less hissy than their previous releases. Virgin Records was, at the time, rather like the early Channel 4 or Miramax, being both successful and committed to accessible, experimental work; the label did not have a number one single until 1980, with The Human League's 'Don't You Want Me'.
The title track is simple to describe but mesmerising to listen to. It starts with a wash of sound reminiscent of 'Zeit', before introducing a simple synth pulse and a mass of Mellotron chords; three and a half minutes in the song's only 'tune' emerges, consisting of four notes, one of which is repeated. A minute later the synth pulse is replaced by a vaguely c&w galloping electric bass line - one which seems beyond the ability of the bassist to play - which is in turn replaced with another synth pulse. From 06:00 to 06:30 'Phaedra' briefly evokes Steve Reich. Meanwhile, many washes of sound are paraded across the stereo field (sadly, and unlike Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells', 'Phaedra' was not mixed in one of the Quad standards then making waves).
For the next three minutes the song turns into a mass of 'Truck driver's gear changes', the synth pulse ascending through several semitones before going off the rails. The last seven minutes of the piece are again reminiscent of the group's earlier work, but lighter and airier. It ends with a tape recording of children playing. Quite what connection it has with the classical myth of Phaedra, as recounted above, is unclear; the group had a talent for enigmatic album titles.
'Phaedra' was, as noted above, an unlikely commercial success, climbing briefly to number 15 in the album charts, a couple of years before Jean Michel Jarre reached the top five with 'Oxygene', albeit that Jarre's album was always melodious, even during its more ambient moments. It seemed that, for a time, the British public was willing to spend money on musical novelties, whilst even in 1974 there was a substantial, albeit faintly tragic hippie contingent. Science fiction was going through a conceptual-psycho-sexual phase and people were convinced that the world was headed for environmental catastrophe. Britain wasn't working. It is hard to imagine the world in 1974.
A year later the group released 'Rubycon', which was similar, but lusher and less interesting. It charted two places higher than 'Phaedra' and marked the group's commercial peak, although they would make their pile in the 1980s, recording Giorgio Moroder-esque Hollywood film soundtracks. After a further album, 'Ricochet', the group changed direction totally, producing a string of tuneful electronic pop albums which sound terribly old-fashioned nowadays.
A feature in 'Mojo' magazine in 1997 suggested that side two of 'Phaedra' had been mastered backwards, although it seems clear from the article that the album was not released in this state. Nonetheless, such is the 'melted' nature of 'Mysterious Semblance etc' et al that they sound much the same when sampled and played in reverse. It's worth noting that former Tangerine Dream member Klaus Schulze's 'Timewind', released a year later, was musically very similar to 'Phaedra', albeit less varied. It's also worth nothing that Tangerine Dream were not, as people imagined in 1974, the future of music; that was James Brown.