In 1976, while traveling to Montreaux for the recording of David Bowie’s Low, Brian Eno contacted German krautrock group Harmonia to propose a collaboration. The trio, having performed with Eno sitting in at a live show two years earlier, accepted the offer despite having recently disbanded to pursue solo careers. The result of their studio collaboration, released in 1997 as Tracks and Traces and now re-released on Gronland Records, is a soothing and compelling artifact of a critical moment in electronic-rock history.
Harmonia — comprising of Michael Rother of Neu! and Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius from Cluster — recorded its two previous albums, Musik von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975), in a studio of its own design in the small German town of Forst. In 1976, Eno joined the temporarily reunited Harmonia for 11 days in Forst, and the quartet produced dreamy, ambient music for the sheer joy of collaboration. Never intended for release and believed to be gone forever after Eno’s original recordings were lost, Rother unearthed the tapes 12 years ago and compiled the quartet’s sonic experimentation into an album.
Elements of each musician’s style appear regularly and blend into a cohesive ambient electronic stew. Rother’s signature motorik beat drives “Vamos Companeros,” a driving, steady marching rhythm whose influence would still be felt decades later in space rockers such as Secret Machines and dance rock of Fujiya & Miyaga. Here, the beat drives the background rather than coming to the forefront, evoking an elusive and meditative quality.
Eno’s style appears in the ambient, repetitive keyboard notes echo slowly in the evocatively titled, “By The Riverside.” Through its ruminative nine and a half minutes, the slowly evolving piece is a shamanistic brew of found nature sounds and electronic whirs, buzzes and blips. “Luneburg Heath” morphs droning chants from Eno as synthesizers echo throughout the sonic sphere with the eerie, spoken-word chant: “Don’t get lost on Luneberg Heath.” Science-fiction pings and whirrs surround the 16-minute “Sometimes in Autumn,” the centerpiece of the album and an otherworldly space flight at times lucid and others bewildered. The haunting poltergeist cries on “Weird Dream” convey richness and wonder, a dreamlike dalliance with the unknown.
Despite numerous engaging moments, however, Harmonia/Eno’s Tracks and Traces fails to reach the lofty heights of the bandmembers’ more acclaimed offerings. It’s less a cohesive album than an experimental jam session of electronic musicians at the top of their craft. A valuable musical historical document of blissed-out reverie, yet more archival than transcendent, and far from the most welcoming introduction to the more accessible and engaging individual output of these electronic-music pioneers.