In grim times musicians could be forgiven for making grim albums, but in much of 2020’s best music the key themes were positive: hope, quiet reflection, transcendence. There was a certain amount of necessary belligerence too – the brilliant and vital clipping. album is a good example – but even that was done with an eye on a brighter future. Overall, it was a really good year for spiritual jazz, ambient, dream-pop. Genres that play with fluidity and ambiguity, that hint at nostalgia or imagine distinct and better worlds.
It’s possible – though perhaps unfair – to accuse certain musicians of avoiding the issue, burying their heads in the sand. But despite its dreamlike qualities, that is not a charge that can be levelled against Richard von der Schulenburg’s Moods and Dances 2021. Using the year in the album’s title implies that this is an exercise utopianism rather than in escapism, and while the difference between the two may seem subtle, it is important. It foregrounds a preoccupation with what is present, visceral and real. It might seem an odd thing to say about an album that takes its cues from library music, and early electronica, but the Moods of the title are entirely contemporary.
The majority of the tracks contain the name of a synthesiser in their titles, and it’s somehow fitting that the album unfolds like a catalogue of impossible futures, a world in which man and (musical) machine are reconciled. Opener Mrs Yamaha’s Summer Tune has echoes of Ryuchi Sakamoto’s ambience, but set to a brisker pace and with a more lucid melodic thrust – it’s calming music, but you can hear the influence of the dancefloor in there too.
Von der Schulenburg has a multifaceted musical background. On one hand, he was a long-term member of Hamburg indie favourites Die Sterne, while most notable recent work has come as a DJ, producer and writer of scores for theatrical productions. You can hear the strands coming together in unexpected ways across Moods and Dances. Caravan of the Pentamatics is lithe and sinewy, African in feel, but minimal in execution, displaying a DJ’s sense of timing allied with the brevity and melodic sensibility of pop. Flowers for the Farfisa Sphinx is a highlight, with haunted, wobbly synths and a windblown backdrop, like Kraftwerk lost in a fever dream of the Sahara.
These pieces are experiments in place as well as time, and the worlds they create are small but complete. Roland’s Night Walk uses a repetitive melody a the human anchor in a world of exterior noise, a world where the chirrups of frogs and crickets are analogous to the sounds of human technology. The sad, twinkling, mechanised waltz of DX7’s Broken Hearts and the exploratory Dance of the Space Pentax sound like robotic minds working out their own rituals, while Wersimatic Space Bar is languid and jazzy, a sci-fi B-movie in miniature.
The album’s final two tracks are amongst its best: Planet Dragon’s chanted backing vocals sound like they were swept off the floor of a 1970s Hong Kong film studio and pieced back together, while the melody has a slightly crazed, improvisational flavour. The library music credentials of Moods and Dances are fully realised in its closing track, the bittersweet slow-burner The End, which reclines in a pillow of wordless vocals and samples of birdsong.
Moods and Dances 2021 is characterised by a lightness of touch, and while its themes are often otherworldly, they are never inconsequential. Von der Schulenburg has created an album which is both a fascinating snapshot of his own musical processes in what for many musicians are unique and trying circumstances, and a small but positive vision of a brighter, or at least more interesting, future.
Moods and Dances 2021 is released on 29th January on Bureau B