Written by: Dave Cantrell
A few crucial, months-old releases that slipped down behind the desk, so to speak, all from the none-more-essential label Bureau B. Normally we might let them remain in those dark office shadows because, y’know, new releases from that long ago may as well be from the last century in the exclusively NOW! myopia that rules this music review game, but these four albums by these three aggregations demanded to be brought out into the shimmering fluorescent light. One’s a Neue Deutsch Welle legend, one’s provenance reaches back to the halcyon early 70’s when everything that came down the autobahn astonished beyond reason, and one brings with them lengthy experimental artists’ bona fides that are, frankly, a bit intimidating. Would have seemed an unforgivable sin to both the artists and our readers alike to let them languish, so, better late than a never for which we’d never be able to properly atone.
Too much slips by. Like any of us in this music scribbling game, the deluge of promising releases flooding over the transom leaves me swimming upstream against a torrent, hoping despite all odds for a level of reasonable, balanced reviewer’s triage as this promising new songwriter and that intriguing new-to-me band go rushing past in an aqueous blur, my at-best glancing listens blending into a diminishing white noise of shredded memory and fatigue. Diminished time and waning energy, with a sad inevitability, defeat your finest intentions, and your efforts however Herculean are rendered Sisyphean.
But then in your desk-obscuring piles you discover an album – or, in this case, albums – that catch your eye, shiny snags gleaming at the bottom of that stream that you just can’t let get away. Thus do I return to this cluster of recordings issued by the ever astute, Hamburg-based Bureau B label last summer. While each evince an unmistakable Germanness, the three bands representing here cover a kind of ür-textual topo map of the country’s late 20th c. musical terrain.
Over there, running through the shadowy, nervous fens outside Düsseldorf is Der Plan, back with their first album of new material in a quarter century. And it’s not some pale simulacrum, either, but the core trio of Moritz R., Kurt ‘Pyrolator’ Dahlke, and Frank Fenstermacher that back in the early 80’s shaped themselves from the band’s slightly obtuse industrial roots into Neue Deutsche Welle’s first tangible hitmakers (a relative term). Here, on Unkapitulierbar (“Uncapitulator” in English, as you may have well guessed), the titans of post-industry pop pursue their alluring ‘electronic schlagers‘ with something of a matured zest, the two-and-a-half decade interim providing the to-be-expected seasoning but by no means dulling the taste.
By turns electro-poppy melodic – the sprite and glitchy “Wie der Wind weht” – dub trippy (“Man leidet herrlich,” the dark PiL lurk of “Stille hören”), strobing with a clubby pulse on the throbbing-robot jam “Lass die Katze stehn!” and the phatter if more restrained “Grundrecht,” and even (gasp!) intrepidly indie, investing tracks like “Es heißt: die Sonne” and “Der Herbst” with a sweet, warm approachability that reflects the inevitable temperance of craft and character decades of (ahem) maturation brings.
Unkapitulierbar, in other words, is kaleidoscopically agile in the sharply comfortable way afforded musicians of Der Plan’s experience and caliber, a point made no more winningly than on album capper “Die Hände des Austronauten,” the sunny space age slice of psychedelica that closes the album like an audio postcard from the Beach Boys vacationing on the planet Zorg. A fabulous return.
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Also returning, if you will, from a place they’ve never exactly been yet neither have ever exactly left, Eberhard Kranemann, founding force of Kraftwerk and Neu! and who some might know by his nom-de-synth Fritz Müller, and crucial Ashra member Harald Grosskopf (see also the electronic adventures of Synthesist and Oceanheart), have teamed together as Krautwerk because hey, why not. If anyone has the authority etc etc, and anyway, the results, if I may, sprechen for themselves.
Drawing with abandon from their exhaustive insiders knowledge, the two preside over six tracks of wicked sonic krautrock redux, executing with sufficient verve and panache to render that ‘redux‘ a tad unnecessary perhaps, as its only relevance, really, derives from the dry math fact that this is 2017 and not 1973. Otherwise, by virtue of its vitality and suss, this, like all great krautrock, is an act of willful timelessness.
To the extent that at the heart of that national genre beat an expansivist precision – such an essential core element of the Austro-German aesthetic; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities just leaped to mind – these two pioneer spirits don’t deviate from that brilliantly simple equation, fleshing these pieces out in ways that are equal parts austere and out-there.
First track “Midnight in Düsseldorf Berlin” roams with a flashing cinematic persistence, its pace relaxed and anxious, Kranemann’s electric guitar work especially pronounced here, adding a texture of nervousness like a slow-motorik Television. “Ou Tchi Gah,” following, interrupts its eerily recognizable autobahnic pulse with something of a German jungle-funk groove that drives it undaunted through the urban zoo to the very end, while the early evening daydream “Happy Blue” is a piece of gleamingly ruined Teutonic house gene-spliced onto a disco-enhanced post-rock romp (let’s imagine for a moment Slint were Arcade Fire hatched in a Munich hothouse, yeah?) and “Be Cool,” closing proceedings, is pure Neu! made impure and throwaway in a way that, of course, commands the utmost attention from our hopelessly enrapt heart-beating soul. Meantime, hovering with great liminal weight in the middle of all this, a creeping colossus of Koyaanisqatsian dimensions called “Buddhatal” that despite its title achieves its impact over its twelve-plus minutes by maintaining an always-pending menace, dread’s inherent tension building itself accruingly into a thing of terrible beauty.
Evocative, visceral, mad, calm, intrinsically grounded even when it’s unsettling as fuck, Krautwerk, in the most satisfying of ways, is exactly what you’d think it would be considering those responsible, full of epic intelligence and a pervasive intuitive balance.
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Further out on the esoteric plains we come upon the specter of a bare-bones analog experimentalism that goes by the glacially appropriate name Esmark. Comprised of fearless sound explorer Nikolai von Sallwitz (Karachi Files would at a guess by his best-known former association) and the avant-artist Alsen Rau (On+Brr), one of the founder-curators of Hamburg artscene incubator Kraniche, it shouldn’t surprise that the results on Māras I and II locate the project on the intriguing fringes of the post-post-modernist electronica map, situated a non-Euclidean equidistance between a synth-corrupted John Cage and Tangerine Dream in a quietly frenetic, trance-induced coma.
Thus, none of the fourteen pieces over these two discs transmit as songs but instead present, en totale, as a bifurcated collage of syncretic atmospheric washes, primal ones and twos, simultaneously discreet and emotive, being offered as sublingual gifts of language art and music to the cosmic bandwidth, sometimes with a beat but just as often with a rhythmic pulse suggesting time is relative – and quite malleable – after all. Just as easily these tracks could be described as patches of radio signal gathered by giant SETI radar dishes sitting in the Gobi Desert or on the slopes of Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf, which, to be honest, is likely my way of saying that when it comes to the work on Māra I and Māra II, elemental resonance is king.
Consequently, whatever the case, there’s not much point in singling out particular tracks. Instead, as the modulars, synths, and ‘drumboxes’ are either allowed their own free
will rein or are daisy-chained like filaments locked in embrace, and as the taped products of this mad sound-scientist process are often fed Ouroboros-style back into the mix, we’re left more with insinuations, with mood-dependent excursions to the hitherto unknown. And anyway, as the ‘tracks’ are named – as per the one sheet – to reflect “biogeography and cartography of the place where the material was recorded” (somewhere in remote Scandinavia), clearly the folly of providing titles was not lost on von Sallwitz and Rau.
In similar fashion, to allege distinction between the symmetrically asymmetric pair (I has six tracks, II eight) is to split hairs pulled from the scalp of a fool. I suppose one might say that II has a more primal nous, is perhaps a twitch more muscular, but in truth that amounts to positing that this mountain has more cunning that that mountain. It’s a specious waste of time that only points to our poor minds’ need for order where in fact none exists and the view of what’s before us – Esmark, stark and complicated – is all the more powerful because of it.