Harmonia & Eno - Tracks and Traces

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Harmonia And Eno '76 Tracks And Traces on Import LP

Magical moments cannot be fabricated at the push of a button, they simply come to be. In the late summer of 1976 such a moment of revelation befell the musicians of Harmonia as if by chance. The band had made two albums up to then, Musik von Harmonia (1974), and Deluxe (1975). Both works are now considered classics of krautrock and electronic music; nonetheless, afterwards the creative core went its separate ways. 

All three musicians were tireless and set to work on solo projects. Michael Rother would later release Flammende Herzen, Hans-Joachim Roedelius Durch die Wüste and Dieter Moebius Lilienthal. But then Brian Eno waltzed onto the scene. He had long been aware of Harmonia, and had even spontaneously joined in on a session with the band at a concert in the Fabrik in Hamburg in 1974. The musicians were not shy about expressing their interest in further collaboration and exchanged numbers. Two years later Eno called the members of Harmonia and asked, “Is now a good time?” The answer, “Well, not exactly – we kind of broke up – but sure, as good a time as any.”

At that time Eno was on his way to Montreux to work with David Bowie on the album Low. A man well-traveled in the beau monde of rock music, he entered the studio in the rural hamlet of Forst in Germany’s Weserbergland region with no pretenses. To quote Rother, “Eno didn’t come across like an aloof pop star at all; on the contrary, he was very pleasant and inquisitive. We worked as equal partners and were a collective that simply wanted to make music, with no thoughts of commercial success and without the pressure of having to record an album. To me those are the best working conditions you can have.” 

“Eno brought a great intellect, boundless pleasure in making music and a font of experience in the realm of popular music, and that clearly opened a door that was already closed,” adds Roedelius. Despite this, the general public heard nothing from these recordings for a long time; in part because they were not made for commercial purposes, but also because Eno’s original tapes were long considered lost. Luckily, Roedelius and Rother had both made copies of the four-track tapes.

Out of the blue in 1997 Harmonia released the album Tracks & Traces, which included clips from the legendary 1976 recording sessions. Roedelius probed the material in his possession and had it remixed using an elaborate technical process. “I did nothing more than technically remaster the original material (one of the three four-track tapes that we had recorded) with Austrian sound engineers and enhance it so it would be digestible for other listeners besides ourselves,” recalls Roedelius. 

Rother explains more precisely, “Due to discord within the band, Achim put the music together on his own. The new tracks recorded in 1997 are therefore an expression of his personality in their atmospheric emphasis. Möbi and I weren’t happy that Achim went it alone, but we had to admit that he had done a hell of a job. All the same, we came to a consensus on the title and the artwork, so Möbi and I were in a sense involved (laughing). But you really can’t say a bad word about the music, it’s wonderful.”

One can do nothing but agree with that assessment. In “Vamos Compañeros” a brazen groove hisses to the fore in the form of a looped steam engine sound. The idyllic detour provided in “By the Riverside” abruptly gives way to an abstract experimental phase with a gloomy undertone. A cautionary finger is raised admonishing, “Don’t get lost on Lüneburg Heath.” After a “Weird Dream” the mood again brightens and the listener is treated to warmer, pop-like harmonies and the slide guitar familiar from Eno’s later works, although, in this case, it is Rother playing it. But, of course, it does not end there.

Rother himself had a copy he had had stashed away in his studio since 1976 as well. One day he decided to digitize the 27 fragments contained on it. Although the material could have filled an entire album, they agreed to add three of the songs to the reissue of the 1997 album. “Initially I asked myself what made sense musically; which of the many tracks I particularly liked and which reflected the broad musical scope of our collaboration with Brian Eno the best. The next step was about how best to integrate the selected tracks into the existing album. Instead of the normal practice of tacking them on to the end of the album as bonus tracks, I proposed changing the structure of the album and the order of the tracks. Luckily everyone involved agreed on that.” 

The album now builds up gradually with the intro “Welcome” and the second track “Atmosphere” before proceeding to “Vamos Compañeros,” from whence it gains the trusted momentum of the original release. It is rounded out with “Aubade,” a track that reinforces the impression of a reconciliatory conclusion.

As they say, good things take time. And now, over 30 some odd years after these recordings were created, we finally have an all-around satisfying version of a long believed lost treasure of the krautrock era. In all likelihood this project signals the end of the Harmonia era. Although the band reformed two years ago and performed some highly acclaimed concerts in Berlin, Great Britain, the USA and Australia in the wake of the release of the celebrated concert recording Live 1974, Rother and Roedelius both jointly declared that there would be no continuation of the live performances – even if doing so would be lucrative for them in many ways. 

But the 1970s German avant-garde never let itself be a slave to commercial interests. Its credo remains as it was then: Good music is what is born of the unadulterated soul of the artist, not something fabricated with strategies and intellectual games, whatever their nature. And, as one can tell from Harmonia & Eno's Tracks and Traces, quality does not lose its luster in such conditions, not even with the passing of decades. So, please, seek out the traces!