According to guitarist Michael Rother, the reason these five tracks – recorded live at the Penny Station club in Griessem, Germany, in March 1974 – contain almost nothing in the way of crowd noise (there are a couple of coughs and the odd mutter) is that the entire audience was too stoned to notice where one quietly propulsive instrumental ended and the next began, never mind register their reaction. True or not, one can understand a certain diffident silence in the face of Harmonia’s preternatural calm and the seductive self-involvement of their sound. Rother, best known as one half of the more energized Neu!, collaborated on two albums – Musik von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975) – with electronic pastoralists Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster. Both are masterpieces, but Live 1974 (released now for the first time) is something like a summation of the group’s overall effect.
The ‘motorik’ sound of Neu! depended on the absolute monomania of Klaus Dinger’s drumming: ‘Dingerbeat’, claimed Brian Eno at the time, was one of the three great rhythms of the 1970s, alongside those of James Brown and Fela Kuti. But the electronic rhythm bed that subtends most of Harmonia’s work is no less uniform: it’s like a solid seam of coal (with ambitions to diamond hardness) beneath a rolling countryside. The machines simply keep hissing and clicking away in unison while Rother essays guitar excursions that are by turns picturesque and desolate. The effect is one often ascribed to Kraftwerk, who only rarely pursued it to this level of exacting concentration: a sort of edge and unease made sedative by repetition.
The album opens with ‘Schaumberg’: stately keyboard stabs and piston-like percussion work out their own intimate arrangement while Rother wanders about a circumscribed arena. As a guitarist, he’s determinedly minimalist, occasionally recalling the most restrained efforts of Dave Gilmour or Robert Fripp. But the atmospherics can easily give way to small squalls of feedback worthy of Sterling Morrison. In fact, for all Harmonia’s analogue futurism, they are clearly indebted, like Neu!, to the more relentlessly primitive side of the Velvet Underground. (There is a case to be made that much of the most hypnotic German rock of this period is really a matter of different musicians hearing slightly different riffs, patterns and rhythms in ‘Sister Ray’.) The 17-minute ‘Veteranissimo’, in particular, could conceivably maintain its gliding momentum for ever.
The other figure ghosting Live 1974 is Eno, whose 1975 album Another Green World owes a good deal to Harmonia, and with whom the group would record several (somewhat disappointing) tracks in 1976. Here the bass undertow of ‘Arabesque’ recalls the synth figure that introduces ‘2HB’ on Roxy Music (1972). Harmonia, in other words, sound like an enigmatic conflation of the trance rock of their German contemporaries and an electronic pop sensibility that would flourish again five years later with post-Punk and New Pop. There is a lightness and delicacy to their repetition that sometimes surpasses even the joyous velocity of Neu! or Dinger’s later group La Dusseldorf. If Krautrock cliché has it that Kraftwerk conjure seamless motorway vistas, and Neu! are the sound of the overworked engine itself, then Harmonia must be the driver’s heartbeat: quickened by speed and soothed by meticulous engineering.