Reviews / June 15, 2017
Supersempfft was Franz Aumüller, Franz Knüttel, and Dieter Kolb—three school friends from the central German region of Thuringia, together with Roboterwerke, the drum machine Knüttel built after realizing how poor his drumming was (they all played in the same after school band). After selling a few Roboterwerkes, one of them to Tangerine Dream, the three decided to use the device for their own ends. They started a group for which Kolb provided the voice, Knüttel the electronics, and Aumüller the concept of “Supersempfft,” a space-faring frog apparently based on Kolb (and whose mysterious name might be a tongue-in-cheek reference to electro-schlager one hit-wonder Carl Sempfft). Aumüller developed Supersempfft’s intergalactic adventures over the songs, album cover, and the comic book that came with their first LP, 1979’s Roboterwerke.
Like many of the records that emerged from Germany from the mid-1960s on, there is an impulsive playfulness to much of Roboterwerke that sits uncomfortably with modern ideas about how commercially distributed music is supposed to work, and the mood is repeatedly—and presumably deliberately—broken in a way that sometimes seems designed specifically to annoy, or at least to test.
Supersempfft refuses to respect the threshold between pristine tech futurism, Residents-esque pastiche, and straight up kitsch, but if you can allow yourself to open up to Roboterwerke‘s freedom of intent, you’ll be glad you did. The record will give you transformative synthesizer journeys—two of them, to be precise—and it will do so in a context that you’ll be poorer for skipping, because it contains inspired hints of everything: seriality, soul, funk, rock, disco, and space disco.
Sounding enormously fresh, the gradually mounting arpeggios and hissing percussion that begin the album’s first song, “Roboterwerke,” gleam with complexity. They are soon joined by chattering banks of treated voices and a jaunty melody before resolving in a euphoric chorus, the whole thing pulsing with all the guileless optimism and wistful melancholy of technology, departure, and travel. Of the songs that follow, “We Found It Out” is a synthesized soul pastiche, “Fantasia/Pipedreams On A Lilypad” a vaguely krautrock-y bit of soul-folk, “Let’s Beam Him Up” a bouncing proto-electro workout, and “I’m Gonna Make You Big” approaches elegiac funk. “Be a Man, You Frog” is an amazing motorized machine-funk instrumental with another baggy bass line looping endlessly under arpeggiating synths, evoking the pristine sound worlds of an irresistible far-future. With its calypso rhythms and cod-Reggae vocals, “Supersempfft” is the track that may try listeners’ patience, but the mood is too much cabaret pastiche not to inspire amusement that, yes, the band actually is going to put that song in there.
After beginning with a glittering space disco intro, the next song, “Out of Time,” suddenly and unexpectedly turns into a falsetto show tune driven by throbbing cruise-ship bass before again defying expectations—becoming a thundering cosmic synth ascent to the cosmos. Perhaps, like Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim about a sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, this is one of the signs of true futurism: you can never be sure if it’s the truth or just a joke. Roboterwerker concludes with a final and totally incongruous parody, this one without any hint of synth: the rickety trumpets and doo-wop of “The Best Thing Is To Get High.”
Despite only performing once (due to difficulties transporting their equipment) at the first Ars Electronica in Linz in 1979, Supersempftt was said to have influenced Herbie Hancock and Kraftwerk, and the inclusion of Wunderwerke—a Supersempfft parallel project—on the first single of electro-prophet Africa Bambaata‘s The Wildstyle (1983), gives an idea of their contemporary impact. The three members of Supersempftt were big fans of dub music. They took several trips to the Caribbean, where they discovered the sounds of Steelband and Soca. Throughout Roboterwerke there are moments when it becomes hard to differentiate between the sequenced patterns and vocoded voices and the rhythms of calypso.
What is odd about their music is how new and contemporary it all seems—the sounds, the rhythms, even the impish sense of humor. Their unlikely contrasting of the synth, so often treated with awed reverence, with almost childish jocularity gives the whole thing the feeling of a game that’s playing out before our ears, and the next twist is never predictable. Their songs resonate like uplifting, pulsing pneumatic holograms of multiple genres projected into the same airspace, yet play out in a natural evolution of bucolic rhythms and melodies.
With its daft concept and refusal to be any one thing for long, some might find the whimsicality of the undertaking a bit hard to stomach, but after repeated listening even the dissonances start to make sense. In their way, Supersempftt represents the best tradition of other groups lumped together under the clumsy Krautrock name—notably Faust—in that the band’s sound dictates the aesthetic, rather than vice versa, and what emerges feels liberating even when it is frustrating. Its spontaneity and indifference to presumed genre limitations is, in its way, as futuristic as many records that more earnestly aspire to the futurist label.
Supersempftt carried on undaunted for two more hugely enjoyable and diverse records, 1981’s Metaluna, which continues the adventures of the cosmic frog and features the wonderful “I See Stars,” and the album Futurist, released (confusingly) the same year under the name Roboterwerke. And at the end of the day, that damn cosmonaut frog is pretty endearing too.
There are two recordings that mark the beginning of the New Age music genre: 1975’s Inter-Dimensional Music by Iasos and 1976’s Spectrum Suite by Steven Halpern. Iasos (his real name is unknown) and Halpern met in Northern California in 1975 and started developing what Iasos calls “paradise” or “perfection” music, which is “intended to sensitize listeners to the subtler, higher frequencies of this reality.” While Halpern’s album is decidedly organic, featuring melodic arpeggios played on a reverb-laden Fender Rhodes (with Iasos playing flute on Side B), Inter-Dimensional Music is otherworldly: a swirling and at times atonal confluence of flute, guitar, and keyboard, all heavily treated by electronics. Whether or not you believe in chakras or “a higher octave of emotions,” the album is “a new and very profoundly beautiful world,” as Buckminster Fuller called it, and probably the first example of what is now called space music, a descendant of ambient.
New Age and space music emphasize mood and atmosphere over structure and melody. The music (or sound) is slow, repetitive, improvisational, immersive, usually electronic, and non-rhythmic. It can be as minimalist as a single elongated note. Natural sound effects (ocean waves, chirping birds) are often incorporated—Irv Treibel’s Environments (1969-1979), a series of LPs presenting “contemplative” “aural environments” of everything from “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” to “Night in the Country,” greatly influenced the development of ambient. Space music generally trades melodies for soundscapes. Be they droning or shimmering, the idea is to emulate the experience of inner and/or outer space, much like lounge music attempts to evoke a particular place and time. (Russ Garcia’s Fantastica  and Attilio Mineo’s Man in Space with Sounds  were direct attempts to musicalize outer space.)
Space music peaked in the mid-1980s thanks to syndicated radio shows like “Music from the Hearts of Space” and “Musical Starstreams,” and artists like Steve Roach, Constance Demby, and Robert Rich have achieved cult followings (given the humble nature of the enterprise, that is all one can hope for). Inter-Dimensional Music was the template, and Iasos would refine and expand his sound over subsequent releases. From the chromatic trills and ethereal slide guitar of “Libra Sunrise” and “Lueena Coast” to the cosmic drones and synth washes of “Cloud Prayer” and “Angel Play,” the album sounds remarkably contemporary, and the effects-driven flourishes can be heard not only in contemporary space ambient, but also in post-punk and post-rock: the Church, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Radiohead.
New Age has a somewhat deserved reputation as disingenuous fluff, and the market is cluttered with albums that claim to heal psychic and physical wounds with sonic vibrations. Watching and listening to Iasos, one gets the impression of a soul incapable of duplicity or vulgarity. His belief that higher-dimensional beings communicate to him and inform his music is as natural as my belief that higher-dimensional beings do not exist and would want nothing to do with our lot if they did. Maybe it’s enough that people like him create music that sounds like an extraterrestrial paradise.