INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo MARCH 2019 - by John Mulvey
Life after Neu! A master guitarist motors on to utopia - Michael Rother: Solo
In late 2000, the odd couple of Neu! were trying, not particularly hard, to find common ground. The three Neu! albums were being formally reissued, and Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger had established a tentative entente to finally capitalise on their reputation as one of the most influential groups of the 1970s, if only for promotional purposes. Together in a north London café, the recollections of their time together often took divergent paths: Rother a model of tense but decorous restraint; Dinger a wild-haired, wilder-eyed manifestation of the more anarchic possibilities of Neu!'s music.
Eventually, the conversation moved on to what happened when their partnership collapsed for the second time, in 1975, and Rother, after working with Cluster as Harmonia, embarked on a solo career.
"I was always interested in good and bad, light and dark," asserted Dinger. "I think it's important that music is not only nice, and that's why I'm not so enthusiastic about Michael's solo things. It's all too nice."
Rother, true to form, remained calm. "I can see it differently. I see light and darkness in my music. And I see despair and beauty, but you have to look much closer. Maybe many people cannot look that close or do not want to look that close, but it's there; I see it."
Since then, the albums of Harmonia as well as Neu! have been upgraded and reissued, reframing cult underground work as canonical texts. Now, the arrival of the Rother Solo box set gives us a chance to examine more closely the four "nice" albums he made between 1977 and 1982. They capture Rother refining the forward momentum of Neu!, the heroic imperative of motorik, and erasing the volatility and pranks that Dinger brought to the mix. Here, there is Mitteleuropean romance - Sterntaler even takes its title from a German fairy tale (see Back Story) - repurposed for a new world of frictionless borders. The sound is optimistic, stainless, only occasionally shading to melancholy; a kind of ego-less triumphalism.
It's easy to understand how a restless spirit like Dinger might be frustrated by the serene focus of these records, by how Rother patiently develops the prettiest of themes and pursues them all the way to the horizon. But the quartet of Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler, Katzenmusik and Fernwärme can also be seen as the logical culmination of Rother's journey: from the nascent Kraftwerk, through Neu! and Harmonia, to this Utopian higher ground.
Rother had moved in 1973 from Neu!'s Düsseldorf base to a tiny village in the forests of Lower Saxony called Forst, ostensibly to be close to his new collaborators, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who already lived there. ("He had this need to go to the country and live - quiet, smooth and nice - another proof of our totally different personalities," Dinger antagonised in 2000).
When Moebius and Roedelius chose to focus on Cluster rather than Harmonia, Rother drifted reluctantly into a solo career. In 1976, he decamped to the studio of his old producer, Conny Plank, and began work on his first solo album with only one other musician for company, Can's exceptional and precise drummer, Jaki Liebezeit (Dinger: "I never really liked [Can]").
The resulting Flammende Herzen ("Flaming Hearts") expands on the electronic voluntaries of Deluxe, the title track of Harmonia's second album from 1975, with Rother's elegant guitar lines taking a much more prominent role. Synths still figure, often harmonising with the lead to give the purely instrumental pieces a lush, mellow grandeur. Again and again, through Flammende Herzen and its equally wonderful follow-up Sterntaler ("Star Money", 1978), Rother begins a track discreetly, gradually layering sounds and melodies over serial repetitions and picking up Liebezeit's percolating throb en route, until he reaches a climax of sustained, hymn-like ecstasy. There are digressions: Liebezeit's dramatic, motorik-breaking rolls through Zeni; Rother's twanging debt to The Shadows coming to the fore at the start of Stromlinien. But mostly the two albums work as gentle symphonic pieces, blissfully consistent where Neu! and even Harmonia's music betrayed their inherent creative differences.
1979's Katzenmusik ("Cat Music") makes the theory explicit, a delicately rapturous pattern of recurring themes spread over twelve interlocking tracks. This time, though, Liebezeit's thrust is sometimes diverted, and more ambient passages create an even more beatific air, a precursor of new age records to come. By Fernwärme ("District Heating", 1982), the first Rother solo album made without Plank, the detours from the "Endlese Gerade" ("Endless line") have become notably more meditative, and keyboards start to take precedence over guitars in Rother's exquisite, hermetic soundworld.
At which point the Solo box set jumps forward the best part of thirty years, avoiding the post-Fernwärme albums on which Rother became besotted with the Fairlight sampler - "That awfully expensive machine," as he described it in a 2016 MOJO Interview. Two extra CDs of mostly unreleased music find Rother, in his sixties, reconciled to the aesthetics that originally made his name. There are signature remixes (for Paul Weller and a less feted UK artist, Boxed In), and two live tracks. One features Rother's current band, with Neu! 75 alumnus Hans Lampe on drums, the other is by the Hallogallo 2010 outfit that included Sonic Youth engine Steve Shelley. Both are slick, meaty workouts that sound more like tech-rock responses to Neu! than to the epiphanies of those early solo albums.
More satisfying, perhaps, are a couple of recent film soundtracks. The quasi-ambient pieces from Houston (2013) explicitly recall the pastoral drone of Neu!'s Negativland, with Rother dusting down the bowed Framus bass from that recording at the request of Houston's director, Bastian Günther. Die Räuber ("The Robbers", 2015), meanwhile, plays like a techno rethink of Fernwärme, though fraught where the 1982 album at least appeared to be more sedate. Maybe, as Rother claimed in 2000, that edge was always detectable in his gorgeous, transporting music. It's just, as he suggested so politely, we haven't always listened closely enough.
Michael Rother's solo albums now seem obscure compared with his work in Neu! and Harmonia. But when Flammende Herzen was released in 1977, it was much more successful in Germany than any of his previous albums had been. The ensuing financial windfall inspired the title of its follow-up, Sterntaler ("Star Money"), named after a German fairy tale in which a poor orphan girl catches coins falling from the sky in her apron.