Berliner Schule: Robert Schroeder – ‘Pyroclast’

❉ As with the best electronic music, while ‘Pyroclast’ wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, it also adds to them.

The back cover of Pyroclast, the new cd from the German Spheric Music label, notes that Robert Schroeder is a protégé of Klaus Schulze, legendary drummer in Tangerine Dream, founder of Ash Ra Tempel and sometime member of The Cosmic Jokers. That’s some serious Berlin School pedigree, right there.

Schroder comes with a pretty decent pedigree of his own too.  With more than 30 albums under his belt since his initial offering, Harmonic Ascendant, in 1979, this is no newcomer to the electronic music scene. And you can hear it in the music. As with the bands who preceded him (especially Tangerine Dream) the music on Pyroclast is composed of smooth synths and liquid riffs, interspersed with perfectly chosen samples. But like the best electronic music, while it wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, it also adds to them.

Take the very first track, for example. Pressure begins with the sort of guitar sounds which could presage everything from folk rock to avant-garde experimentation, before first a short, repeated synth line, then first echoing, then drilled, drums join in, and everything shifts down into a more minor arrangement. Treated voices soar on top, as the same insistent guitar line continues to repeat, growing slightly quicker, it seems. The tempo increases, the pressure builds, the guitar continues its never-ending refrain…the song matches its title perfectly…and then finger cymbals clink together and there’s the most blessed sense of relief – and what I was most reminded of now was Zoolook-era Jean-Michel Jarre. It works perfectly, a mix of two of the greatest ever exponents of electronic music, brought together to create something new.

There are shades of that particular Jarre-era throughout the album, in fact (which is a good thing, frankly – for me, it’s by far the most interesting period of the Frenchman’s career). Tracks 2 and 3, Plasma and Tephra, both contain the almost-but-not-quite-recognisable speech sounds of Zoolook, placed carefully and effectively amongst languid, warm synth work.

Tephra in particular is a glorious piece of music, beginning with quiet, melancholy piano, the gentle sound of elongated synth waves and what could be a horn, then adding a speaking voice treated to the point at which it becomes alien music in its own right. A soft drum like a heartbeat enters and departs, the synths soar upwards and the combination of elegiac piano and ascending synths has the listener reaching for the back button, keen to listen one more time. (Tephra, incidentally, is the volcanic ash which settles and becomes part of the sedimentary layer after a volcano erupts, often containing the fossilised remains of the animals killed by the explosion – it’s a perfect name for this sometimes sad, sometimes optimistic track).

Eruption is, on the face of it, an odd name for the next track, however. From the title alone you would expect driving, forceful, even violent music, but instead Schroeder supplies something melodic and faintly menacing. Inside Out continues in similar vein, but Fertile Soil which follows it is another gorgeous seven minutes, with chilled waves of synth serving as…well, fertile soil for a chorus of chanted intonations.

Listening to this track, all I could think of was the seminal SF novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its monasteries in which the monks protect blueprints which they hope will guarantee the success of a post-apocalyptic future. It’s presumably not what Schroeder had in mind, but that’s the beauty of this sort of music – the musician has a story to tell, and tries to encapsulate that story in his music; the listener can either take that on board or find his own tale in it. And perhaps the theme of redemption and regrowth are shared by both music and novel. Either way, it’s a beautiful piece.

Pyroclast concludes with two linked tracks – Exothermic Energy, in which Schroder manages to give an unexpectedly positive spin to a spectacularly destructive force (see this video by the artist for his own vison of the track) before descending into what is almost drone, as his synth lines stretch out in long, slow movements, and Pyroclastic Flows which bubbles and bounces along in an upbeat fashion, perhaps with the intention of suggesting that the violent force of an eruption and its after-effects need not be wholly negative.

❉ Robert Schroeder: ‘Pyroclast’ is released 1 April 2021 by Spheric Music, SMCD-2042. EAN-Code: 4260107470205. Click here to order:

❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas

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