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Agitation Free


Formed in 1967, they became the resident band in the Zodiac Club in Berlin. Their earliest line-up was Lutz Ulrich (guitar), Lutz Kramer (guitar), Michael Günther (bass) and Christophe Franke (drums). In 1970 Kramer left to be replaced by Axel Genrich and Franke left to join TANGERINE DREAM, a group whom shared a practice room (as did ASH RA TEMPEL). Jörg Schwenke and Gerd Klemke also joined the group, but by 1971 they had reduced from a sextet to a quintet following Klemke’s departure. Michael Hoenig came in at this point on keyboards, along with Burghard Rausch on drums.
In 1970 the group appeared at the first German Progressive Pop Festival at the Sportpalast in Berlin, and in 1972 toured Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece, collecting field recordings as they went which were used on their brilliant first Vertigo LP, MALESCH (1972) {*9}. Multimedia light shows were always an integral part of their live shows, though the group was never considered political (or “agit”) in the way that GURU GURU or AMON DÜÜL were deemed. The approach seemed more to endorse the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and follow German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “extended culture” trail rather than agitate against it- ironic really! Indeed their eastern Mediterranean tour was funded by the Goethe Institute; the group performed as part of the cultural programme of events at the 1972 Munich Olympiad.
With a line-up of Schwenke (guitar), Ulbrich (guitar, zither, organ), Hoenig (synthesizer, steel guitar), Peter Michael Hamel (Hammond organ), Günther (bass, tapes) and Rausch (drums, marimba, voice) the aforesaid set itself was best listened to as a whole suite of music or one side at a time; a shimmering magical carpet ride and dreamy concoction of psychedelic progressive “free” jazz rock with brief street dialogue seamlessly woven into the fabric of an unforgettable sonic experience. Deftly impressionistic the music never got carried away with itself as bass lines built to a solid backbeat of rhythm; haunting organ chords and guitar arpeggios were absorbingly atmospheric. Whether it was the organ and percussion on ‘Sahara City’, or the Arabian feel to ‘Pulse’, or the progressive rock of ‘Ruckstürz’; with its interplay between guitar and organ, the set was maybe not as demonstrative as other forms of progressive rock or jazz, but was quietly assertive and satisfying.
Recorded in Munich and again released on Vertigo, 2nd (1973) {*9}, might be an unimaginative title for an album, but there was nothing unimaginative about the music. Starting as did with some spacey sounds, a lovely guitar arpeggio and some harmonics, the opening track, `First Communication’, was accompanied by prominent bass lines, empathic drumming and beautiful organ chords ran to fluent guitar improvisation. The wondrous piece ended in a bridge with some experimental percussive sounds and electronics (‘Dialogue & Random’). Once again numbers melded into each other to provide a continuous listening experience and the wondrous ‘Laila, Part 1 & 2’ followed; a great place for the uninitiated to begin. This had the kind of flow, rhythm and melody that could easily occupy a whole side; sheer genius with a more demonstrative approach by the guitarist, revealing a group reveling in a new found confidence,. Using birdsong to accompany the serpentine-like guitar runs might seem a bit twee nowadays, however, it was innovative then and so well integrated. Three longish pieces (`In The Silence Of The Morning Sunrise’, `A Quiet Walk’ and `Haunted Island’) fill up side two with wonderful interplay between guitar and the mandolin-like sound of the bouzouki, some “glissando” playing evident with shades of STEVE HILLAGE pursuing similar meditative, eastern paths. Traditional vocals (almost spoken) appear for the first time ending with the phrase “out of space, out of time” before reappearing; a reverberating organ chord to a synth wind, mellotron then more flowing guitar passages. Early Mk.II PINK FLOYD was often cited as a reference point and certainly was for aforesaid final piece. The line-up on the set was Stefan Diaz (guitar), Ulbrich (guitar/12-string guitar/bouzouki), Hoenig (synths/keyboards), Günther (bass) and Rausch (drums, percussion, mellotron, voice). Schwenke had left the group in 1973 to be replaced by Diaz, who did not stay long before being replaced by Gustav Lütjens.
The group’s third and final album featured music recorded for French and German radio stations in March 1973 and the following February. LAST (1974) {*8} introduced the newly recruited Dietmar Burmeister (drums, percussion). The set started like a space rock album on ‘Soundpool’; anticipation building in layers of sound collages like a TANGERINE DREAM live concert, then returning to the flowing vein of “kosmisches music” that the band was for famed; stopping suddenly before more slow burning atmospherics; laconic at first then bursting into life with busy bass and drums and sustained notes on the guitar that gain momentum on a wave of blues rocky progressions that felt like a potent mix of HAWKWIND and AMON DÜÜL II, though never content to stay in one place. A welcome reminder of one of the group’s strongest compositions ‘Laila Part 2’ was here in an extended version (with new material over its 17 minutes), as the familiar melody changed the mood to one of quiet reflection. On the final piece, ‘Looping IV’ (over 22 minutes), Erhard Grosskopf provided the loops (and gains the writing credit); the group splitting up after a farewell concert in Berlin in November of that year.
As archival releases go, “Fragments” (1998) – released on the French label Spalax – was above average. A recording of a final reunion free concert in the Studentenclub Elchkamp, Berlin on 14th November, 1974, it was best described as “shifting configurations”. A 17-minute number, ‘Someone’s Secret’, started off proceedings, a fairly standard jazz rock jam sounding a bit like CHICAGO’s ‘I’m A Man’ crossed with PINK FLOYD’s ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’, but made more interesting by the electronics as the restlessly creative urges of the group are undiminished . ‘Micky’s Laugh’ at 10 minutes was a more fluid guitar based excursion with the usual virtuosic performance by the rhythm section. ‘We Are Men’ was more electric piano based, although guitar became more integral; again very rhythmic, always a feature of the band’s sound with lots of percussion and a great performance by Rausch, similar in style to the opener. The final track, ‘Mediterranean Flight’, was an accomplished instrumental, though should be considered a bonus as it was recorded in a Berlin studio also in 1974.
“At The Cliffs Of River Rhine” (1998) was recorded live at Cologne (on the Rhine) shortly after the release of “2nd” in 1974. It was indeed a nicely put together CD release on the Garden Of Delights label, accentuating the uniqueness of the group. ‘Through the Moods’ built slowly on a bass riff by Günther, with nice cymbal work by Rausch augmented by the twin guitars of Ulrich and Lutjens; Hoenig providing the atmospheric synth and organ lines. There were interesting takes on ‘First Communication’ (a wild ending!) and the classic ‘Laila’; ‘In The Silence Of The Morning Sunrise’ was a quieter, reflective version.
On the back of these releases, RIVER OF RETURN (1999) {*6} was a respectable studio comeback; an hour of new music with most of the original members present; Hoenig unfortunately being unavailable because of soundtrack work. Although an inconsistency of approach undermined the project somewhat (‘Das Kleine Urhwerk’: a jug band number and the rocky concluding number ‘Keep On’ feel out of place), ‘Nomads’ was a standout, recalling the great days of their debut set; with acoustic guitar, hand drums, light touch cymbals, a bass undercarriage with electric guitar floating over the top, all in all a balmy, hypnotic invocation. The title track was another fine piece; with airport terminal announcements and chatter bookending it, the synth and drums/percussion sparkle and some “Arabic” instrumentation briefly takes one back to the desert; a different mode of transport perhaps, but the same destination. Like its departed keyboard player, the group maybe had a film in mind when they wrote the 13 minute ‘177 Spectacular Sunsets’; which doesn’t live up to its billing in terms of breadth of musical impressionism, but was a triumph of sorts of ambient minimalism. The other long piece, ‘Suzy Sells Seashells At The Seashore’, was similarly somnambulistic; guitar harmonics, whammy bar vibrato and a sustained synth line with strange “vocalisations” sounding like a native Indian chant. The introduction of tenor sax was an interesting move evident on ‘The Obscure Carousel’, which was defined by a repetitive guitar arpeggio and a sustained organ chord underpinning sax, bagpipes and an interchange between sax and electric guitar that seem slightly at odds with each other. Overall, Lutjens, Ulrich, Gunther and Rausch were in good form, even if the augmentation of the group with “world” instruments and the stylistic diversity was not an unqualified success.
To capitalise on the interest in the group producing its first new material for 25 years, the people at Garden Of Delights issued “The Other Sides Of Agitation Free” in 1999 with a mixed reaction; devotees disappointed by the lack of adventurousness on ‘Deliverance’, the only track that delivered as being characteristic of the group; the rest in the mode of spacey jazz fusion though lacking in ambition. Most tracks had vocals and were well done, though opener ‘Atlantic Overcrossing’ sounded too 70s AOR for most fans. While the musicianship could not be faulted, it should be noted that only two recognisable members of the group, Lutjens and Gunther perform.
There were no such doubts about SHIBUYA NIGHTS LIVE IN TOKYO (2011) {*9}; recorded over three nights in February 2007 from a series of concerts sponsored by a Japanese fan. The set was released in a double-LP format and on CD/DVD by Esoteric (Cherry Red) Records and featured the unimaginable: a complete reunion of five iconic figures within the group’s history: Hoenig, Lutjens, Ullrich, Gunther and Rausch, joined by bass player Daniel Cordes and a Japanese ukulele player, Issery Ogata. Both the recording quality and the performance were top notch with clever editing and segueing of the music, including field recordings from North African airports on their 1971 tour. The fusion of classic material; 14 instrumental pieces in all from their first two albums, and some new material, worked a treat and provided a seamless listening experience. Whether live or in the studio, AGITATION FREE’s contribution to “kosmisches” music has been immense.
Sadly, Gunther died in 2014.
© MC Strong/MCS 1997/GPD// rev-up PJ/Phil Jackson May2018

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