Pilots Of Purple Twilight: ‘The Virgin Recordings 1980-1983’ (UMC/EMI)

It’s fair to say that the first half of Tangerine Dream’s epic 10-year adventure with Virgin Records gets more plaudits than the second. If we’re splitting this period in two, as Universal has done with these reissues, then part one – released last summer under the banner of ‘In Search Of Hades: The Virgin Recordings 1973-1979’ – is a cohesive journey into the furthest frontiers of the progressive electronic genre. Part two is an assortment of sonic delights and foibles: prodigious, prolific and sometimes profligate.

A new decade, a new Tangerine Dream, or so it is often supposed, found 1980’s ‘Tangram’ to be a consolidation of what had come before and a clue to where things were headed. True, the talismanic Peter Baumann was no longer aboard the mothership, but he hadn’t been there for the mighty ‘Force Majeure’ either, and ‘Tangram’ felt like a companion piece to its predecessor, updated for the computer age. New pop, made increasingly with synthesisers, was short, sharp and allergic to indulgence all of a sudden. Tangerine Dream clearly didn’t get that memo, or if they did, they greeted it with a resolve to up the ante at every opportunity… at least to begin with anyway.

‘Tangram Set 1’, a customary spurge across side one, weaves and segues through a panoply of moods. There’s a real sense of ebullience as a brave new world emerges, and as vanguards of electronic music, Edgar Froese and his coterie had no doubt assumed that they’d be leading the charge. ‘Tangram’ starts with Tetris-like ostinatos, a nod to minimalism before running the gamut to maximalism and back again. It sounds like an album setting the agenda for the next decade, an agenda that wasn’t heeded. The releases that followed would bend to the will of the age rather than the other way around.

‘Pilots Of Purple Twilight’ also documents Tangerine Dream’s wholehearted plunge into the world of soundtracks (they would go on to score around 50 films). They’d dipped their toes in the water with 1977’s ‘Sorcerer’, impressing director William Friedkin who admitted he would have used them for ‘The Exorcist’ had he discovered them earlier.

It’s a given now that soundtracks can be ambient electronic, and in many cases it’s a prerequisite. Tangerine Dream began that process and Vangelis perfected the emergence of cinematic synthwave on ‘Blade Runner’. The score for Michael Mann’s ‘Thief’ (with it’s 80s sheen, profusion of fuzz tube guitar solos and predictable power chords) is underwhelming, although fans of the band will be cock-a-hoop that the soundtrack to Mann’s follow-up, ‘The Keep’, is included in this collection.

‘The Keep’ was famously beset with production difficulties, and the music was never given a full release, although urban myths and conspiracies about fans going to buy it only to discover it had been mysteriously deleted pervaded. Tangerine Dream eventually pressed up ‘The Keep’ themselves and sold a limited number of CDs on tour in 1997, but this boxset marks the first official release.

It’s been worth the wait for those who’ve kept the faith all this time. From the futuristic chamber music of ‘Arx Allemand’ and Thomas Tallis’ 16th century ‘Puer Natus Est Nobis’, souped up a la Wendy Carlos, through to the moody panpipes of ‘The Night In Romania’, it’s an excellent lost album from this undervalued period.

Perhaps the depreciation is due in part to the amount of material there is to wade through from just three years. This boxset is packed with the very good and the fairly average: the two live concerts spread over three discs aren’t superfluous, but they don’t feel all that essential, and there are other soundtracks from the period confusingly tacked onto studio albums. The underappreciated and often hypnotic ‘Hyperborea’, especially the title track and the sitar and tabla infused opener ‘No Man’s Land’, is attached here to five tracks from the commercially viable, but artistically so-so Tom Cruise vehicle ‘Risky Business’.

By the time the Tangs were writing songs for mainstream American teen sex comedies, some fans perceived that their favourite cosmic hippies, purveyors of proto-psychedelic trance, had become a little too corporate. ‘White Eagle’ for instance, which was reshaped and repurposed for the German TV series ‘Tatort’, could have been written for a computer game. The soundtrack for ‘The Soldier’, also here, is tense and mechanical and is a far cry from their years describing beauty with sonic airbrushes.

If Tangerine Dream were trying to fit into the 1980s aesthetic then they were also way ahead of the game in their output, producing reams of content long before it was fashionable, or even called that. To paraphrase the character of another Hollywood actor called Tom, ‘Pilots Of Purple Twilight’ is like a box of chocolates; you never quite know what you’re gonna get.

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