Tangential Musings on Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra": Prog Rock Countdown #23

Tangential Musings on Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra": Prog Rock Countdown #23

Supposedly, people's musical tastes stagnate as they age, and most people stick with what they liked as teens.

But I'm 35 and have recently become very interested in trying new things. I grew up on (Canadian) alt rock in the 90s, but in the last couple years I've been getting into new wave, trip hop, and metal, plus I find I hate things like nu metal, punk, and hip hop far less than I used to.

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And, of course, I'm expanding my prog tastes as well. Some of my new listening has emerged from writing these prog reviews in fact: my negative take on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here prompted a reader to suggest that I probably don't like post rock. I had to immediately look up what that means, and I very quickly got into Grails and Mogwai, and more recently Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Plus some random stuff on Spotify that sounds good: I highly recommend U137's Dreamer on the Run.

Post rock can be described as what happens when rock artists write atmospheric music, or stuff that would be appropriate for a film soundtrack. "Cinematic" is a term I've seen thrown around with post rock. I've explained it thusly: "You know those weird sound effects that get added to songs in production, often to introduce or conclude a song, or attach two together? Now imagine an album of nothing but that." Just segues and effect.

I treat post rock a little like classical music and video game music, not least of all because it's usually instrumental, though some artists, like Mogwai, have the odd song with lyrics here or there. What I mean is that I'll put it on in the background while working or watching my kids when I want something to create a nice atmosphere and I don't want to get lost in a groove or to get distracted by the need to sing.

Phaedra (1974) is perfect as background music. It's dreamy, spacey, a little psychedelic at times, introspective, moody, relaxing, and technically proficient. In effect, I have very little to say about the quality of the album. I've gotten a taste for electronic music in very small doses, or when combined with more familiar genres - I really enjoy Chvrches' alternative-electronic style, for example. This album is clearly seminal in electronic, and probably post rock, music, obviously, and there is nothing to complain about here. It's cool, easy to listen to, and impressive when I really pay attention. It's a great addition to my catalogue of background instrumental music.

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My wife says "it sounds like Blade Runner."

It makes sense. Prog and electronic music have strong cultural connections to futurism - just think about all the science fiction themed lyrics on albums I've already reviewed. Like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, who composed the soundtrack to the Bade Runner, played around with synthesizers to create futuristic sounds appropriate to the movie. This album’s title, Phaedra, creates a link between ancient mythology and modern electronic artistry. What this electronic symphony actually has to do with the Greek myth of the woman who hit on her stepson and then accused him of rape when he turned her down, I can't fathom. But inspiration needs no logic, and the ancients have long had their influence on new artistic expression in western culture. What's one more to the pile?

Other prog artists find inspiration in mythology too, and myth has a strong influence on science fiction. That's probably because science fiction and mythology have a similar function of helping us to make sense of the unknown, whether it's the future, the past, or the undiscovered mysteries of the universe. The two genres fascinate us in similar ways. They give us both role models and cautionary tales. They test the limits of our morality and help us to envision a better way forward. Progressive music generally appeals to a desire for novelty and depth, and many prog artists use storytelling - including stories based in mythology and sci fi - to explore complicated emotions and ideas, iterated through complex musical arrangements.

On the subject of exploring the bounds of what's known and thought, it's worth noting that at a time when anyone can make electronic music on their desktop, Phaedra might not seem that impressive. But Tangerine Dream pushed the limits of available technology when recording this album. Musical aspiration sometimes overtook the abilities of the synthesizers and recording equipment. It was experimental and ambitious, and had a huge payoff.

Note: I tainted my experience of listening to this album for the first time by accidentally listening to the Phaedra Revisited 35th anniversary edition first. This is a re-recording of the album using modern instruments and recording technology. The result is a very different listening experience, especially since the title track now has drum machine.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  20. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  21. Camel - Mirage

  22. Rush - 2112

  23. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Camel - Mirage

  4. Yes – Close to the Edge

  5. King Crimson - Red

  6. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  7. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  8. Rush - 2112

  9. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  10. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  11. Rush - Moving Pictures

  12. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  13. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  14. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  15. Pink Floyd - Animals

  16. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  17. Yes - Fragile

  18. Rush - Hemispheres

  19. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

  20. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  21. Can - Future Days

  22. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  23. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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A Great Discovery in Rush's "2112": Prog Rock Countdown #22

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