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Best of Tangerine Dream:
Tangram (Set 1)

A classic electronic rock romp which is among the best pieces of synthesizer-driven popular music ever written.

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Kicking off the 76 days of “The Best of Tangerine Dream” (to round out 2022) where I will write about a new track every day, I present to you one of Tangerine Dream’s finest masterworks: Tangram.

Before I dive into this exquisite example of classic electronica, let me set the stage for what Tangerine Dream has meant to me in my life.

As far as I am concerned, there is music I listen to and enjoy. And then there is Tangerine Dream. They occupy an entire region of my psyche alone. Just like classical music has its Beethoven, a figure who looms larger than life and redefined a whole new era of sound, electronic music has its Tangerine Dream.

I first discovered Tangerine Dream rummaging through my father’s CD collection as a young boy. He didn’t have much: the Dream Sequence compilation from the Virgin label, and Optical Race. At first listen they don’t even seem like they were from the same band (longtime fans will go into a lengthy dissertation why that is), but when you settle into the mood a bit more, the connective tissue is most certainly there. (And I’ll be covering a couple of tracks from Optical Race later in this series.)

I remember hearing the (oddly short) excerpt from Phaedra, and my brain would explode with visions of lava bubbling up to the Martian surface. Or I would listen to The Dream is Always the Same and imagine I am an explorer discovering a vast landscape in a distant age. It was mind-altering music, unlike anything I had ever heard before. I already had a love of synthesizers from listening to 80s synth pop like Genesis’ Invisible Touch and Howard Jones’ Human’s Lib—even Enya. But Tangerine Dream made their forays into synthesizer-driven soundscapes seem banal by comparison. Pop artists used synthesizers mostly to recreate the sounds of other pop instruments. Tangerine Dream used synthesizers and invented a whole new genre of art.

While I spent much of my teenage years recording and performing Celtic folk music, my other obsession was classic synthesizer music. Tangerine Dream, along with Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and a handful of others, was my love language. As time passed my tastes expanded into more modern forms of electronica, and now I enjoy a wide range of subgenres. (Especially progressive house, drum’n’bass, and more recently synthwave for obvious reasons!) But I always return to my home. I always come back to Tangerine Dream.

Tangram. Set 1 in particular. Set 2 (aka side two of the original record) is good stuff, but it comes nowhere near the sheer genius of Set 1.

Set 1 opens with the canonical orchestration of “Berlin School” electronica. The sequence (a sort of analog flute/bell sound). The kick-you-in-the-ribs squelchy bass. Some sort of string or vocal-like pad. Random effects sprinkled on top like stardust. Eventually we get more elements which sound like organs or electric pianos. Some guitar strums. A bit of percussion.

Now let it be said that by the time Tangram was released in 1980, Tangerine Dream’s sound had admittedly veered more into conventional “progressive rock” territory—much less avant-garde and experimental compared to their early 70s work. Yet they still had a lock on this particular kind of sound. You might hear other artists here and there dabble in a kind of Berlin School/progressive rock crossover vibe. But Tangerine Dream owned this. They were the King—imitated perhaps, never duplicated.

Anyway, things really start to kick into high gear around the 3:12 mark, and I need to explain something to you. I live for those “goosebumps” moments in my favorite music. The moments where the hair on the back of your neck starts to stand on end. The moments where you feel electricity shooting up and down your spine. The moment just before a dramatic climax where you can’t help but jump up, or grin ear-to-ear, or let out a little whoop. Does it sound like I’m talking about sex? Is this some sort of mind orgasm?

Well, whatever you want to call it, the bloody fantastic buildup to 3:26 when the bass sequence fully takes flight and we’re assaulted with a panoply of chimes and trills and thrilling chord progressions and forte piano and now there’s the herald of a brass-like lead and…oh my god, I’m having another mind orgasm.

(Unfortunately that’s all swept away by 4:30 and we get some…uh…other stuff. Not as thrilling. But don’t worry, it will get better again.)

I’ll refrain from giving you the blow-by-blow of the rest of the track, but let me summarize with this: Tangerine Dream has had many highs (and many, many lows) over its 50+ year history (yes, they’ve been around that long!). But I can think of few highs that sit higher in my mind than Tangram Set 1. It was the culmination of several years of incredible experimentation and change, with the fresh ingredient of new band member Johannes Schmoelling helping to propel the band into one of its most successful time periods ever. Post Tangram we’re given such outstanding works as Exit, Logos, White Eagle, and Poland. In today’s 80s-retro world where synthwave has gone mainstream and everyone’s loosing their minds over Stranger Things, Tangerine Dream’s Schmoelling-era music sounds actually modern. Snip a minute or two out of Logos or Poland, stick it in the soundtrack of the latest Netflix special, and nobody would blink an eye.

Heck, listen to the first track of electronic music legend BT’s recent album The Lost Art of Longing and tell me this isn’t just a blatant homage to 80s Tangerine Dream. Berlin School is the most popular music nobody’s ever heard of.

Talk to any electronic music legend of recent years and ask them what they think about Tangerine Dream. Go ahead. You many not have heard of TD, but I guarantee most of your heroes have. Or go back in time just a little to the seminal mid-90s electro-ambient classic 76:14 by Global Communication. The track 8:07 is essentially a remix of Love on a Real Train, and everyone knows it. (Oh, did I mention Tangerine Dream either recorded the electronic soundtrack to some amazing late 70s/80s movies or directly inspired others who did?)

I’ll get to Love on a Real Train specifically later on in this series, but to whet your appetite, a (really awesome) cover of the piece on YouTube has 12M views. Twelve million views. For a cover, not the original.

Again, it’s likely your random person on the street hasn’t heard of Tangerine Dream. Or maybe they did once and forgot. But Tangerine Dream’s impact on modern electronic music—and thus modern music—cannot be overstated. Kraftwerk is another German electronic band who had a huge impact on modern music. But I would say Kraftwerk itself is a bit of an acquired taste, and much of their impact was felt through the artists they directly inspired.

Tangerine Dream stands apart. Often imitated. Never duplicated.

Coming up next in the series: Genesis of Precious Thoughts.

/// October 17, 2022 ///