The seemingly instantaneous ability in the 21st century to obtain even the most intimate details about anything or anyone has led to a strange, but expected reaction among artists in which anonymity or even false identity starts to become preferable to straightforward honesty. An air of anonymity can create a sense of mystery and intrigue (see: The Weeknd, Burial), while costumed performances and masked theatrics can render notions of honesty and identity kind of boring (see: Ghost). Yet it’s rare for an artist and his biography to be invented whole cloth. That seems to be the case with Jürgen Müller, a supposed oceanographer who accompanied a documentary film crew to capture evidence of seawater contamination in 1979, and subsequently became so awestruck by the oceanic atmosphere that he temporarily put aside his research to make an album of progressive electronic music inspired by his experience. He pressed 100 copies in 1982, then faded into obscurity, only to be unearthed once again in 2011 by Brad Rose and the Digitalis label.
While there’s enough of a kernel of doubt in the myth to lead one to believe Jürgen Müller’s Science of the Sea actually happened as it was told, the overwhelming conclusion reached by those who have heard it and researched it is that Müller is essentially a work of fiction. As romantic as the story is, and as much as the music on the album takes its roots in electronic krautrock or kosmische records from the 1970s, the album ultimately comes off more modern sounding than the listener might be led to believe, drawing more parallels to the Editions Mego roster than anything 30-40 years old. For a modern record with an incredibly elaborate tale behind it, Science of the Sea is a wonderfully immersive experience.
Boasting song titles like “The Elusive Seahorse” and “Dream Sequence for a Jellyfish,” Science of the Sea seems carefully aestheticized to resemble a Jacques Cousteau documentary. For as kitschy as the whole package seems, however, it is actually a lovely piece of ambient electronic music, its soft, billowing synthesizer layers crafted to resemble an excursion into oceanic depths. “Beyond the Tide,” for example, twinkles to life like particles of kelp and tropical fish caught in lamplight beams, and the pulsing, popping “Sea Bed Meditation” actually seems to capture the sensation of bubbles rising to the surface. And “Sea Green,” simple and serene, is a gorgeous exercise in simplicity.
Originally released last year on vinyl (or 1982, as the story goes), Science of the Sea has been reissued for a wider pressing on CD, thus spreading the work of this mysterious, possibly invented oceanographer and musician to a wider audience. The backstory, it’s worth noting, doesn’t really matter much here. While the sea-faring concept certainly gives the album an added dimension in terms of inspiration, one need not dig too deeply into specifics to be able to soak in the cosmic rays of a piece like “Waterworld.” And contrary to many of electronic music’s more progressive, krautrock-influenced composers, the music on Science of the Sea is much more digestible and concise, with few songs running longer than three minutes apiece. Whoever is truly behind Science of the Sea (and most now believe it to be Norm Chambers aka Panabrite) has made something beautifully simple and serene, regardless of its supposed origins.
Stream: Jürgen Müller – “Beyond the Tide”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.