Trans-Europe Expression

Sun Sun Sun on the Autobahn

"Pilot," the catchy-as-a-5:15 standout on the Notwist's elegantly beautiful fifth album, Neon Golden, is not the kind of song customarily championed for pop immortality. Sure, it's got the emotional equilibrium classic pop requires—in "Pilot" 's case, the joyful whiteboy r&b bounce of its chorus (think Scritti Politti) is levied by the mournful disposition of Markus Acher's soft voice singing about the desire for control (think Radiohead). Yet its piecemeal construction has little to do with the form's usual blueprint: "Pilot" is neither a grandiloquent melodic piece nor a simple three-chord romp. It instead convenes a familiar diaspora—imitation-dub bassline, disco-rock beats, new wave keyboards, "Creep" guitar scratches—getting art-school engineered into a sleek new piece of future-rock. Which would usually imply that, like much European progressivism, it ought to be more thoughtful than feeling. But like "Blue Monday," its closest spiritual cousin, "Pilot" ends up being both. Mirroring the Notwist's own history, it is a result of shared, constantly evolving figures. But rather than ending up as a weighted journey into obscurity, it becomes a possible escape route toward a meaningful (European) community rock mode. Sometimes more is better.

Growing up as jazz-educated punks enamored with the energy of pre-'91 Metallica and the early AmRep catalog, Weilheim, Bavaria, residents Markus and brother Micha Acher and Martin Messerschmid at first embodied one sort of European rock cliché—endless sonic appetites, slight insider respect, and a finite audience who couldn't help getting bored by it all. Before 1995's 12, the Notwist made two heavy, smart, but hardly extraordinary albums deeply indebted to American precedents. And though the side trips with fellow hometown experimentalists expanded their theater of operations—into dark, feedback-laden soundtracks as part of Village of Savoonga, and old-timey jazz while backing the Achers' father, a player in the New Orleans Dixie Stompers—like much of what would come to be labeled post-rock, these were better in theory than in reality. But on 12, a fixation with indie rock's detachment and a frame of fuzz-bubble digitalia, courtesy of soon-to-be member Martin Gretschmann, started a process of sound self-actualization by usurping Berlin dub's techno textures, and beginning to fit them within the Notwist's framework.

Gretschmann's full-time addition gave the Notwist's heretofore lo-fi visage a noticeable electronique bloom. So 1998's Shrink gave clicks, cuts, and laptop melodies co-billing with the guitars, the atonal horns, and saxophone solos, incorporating synthetic sounds as organically as a rock-minded album could. (If ever you seek a Kid A blueprint . . . ) And Shrinkdidn't just open the floodgates of creativity for individual Notwists; its worldwide critical attention and homeland commercial success presented opportunity. In addition to Björk productions and too many remixes to count, Gretschmann's one-man synth-pop tracks as Console (most easily found on 2000's Rocket in the Pocket) shame anyone who doesn't believe laptop-isms can unfold as hook-friendly electric dreams. The Achers' ambient-jazz recordings with the mathematically challenged Tied & Tickled Trio have strayed into Bonaroo territory (last year's mostly live Electric Avenue Tapes breaches techno-jam nirvana in a way that noodlesome barbarians like the Disco Biscuits could never hope to). And by joining forces with chanteuse Valerie Trebeljahr in the techno-rock quartet Lali Puna, Markus Acher has picked up the motorik flag Stereolab dropped when they overdosed on the bossa nova. In the wake of Shrink, Gretschmann and the Achers have done more to spread WARP/Basic Channel textural presentations to rhythmically lazy technophobes than just about anyone in general rock-dom, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Icelandic pixie and Radiohead.

Germans with machines
photo: Bernd Bergmann
Germans with machines

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In all this activity, the Notwist has become the festival-headlining anchor, with Neon Golden a German Top 10 "smash," and Top 40 throughout the continent. Album number five dwarfs its predecessors because the members have started treating this group as the sun around which their musical projects must inevitably revolve, and the home to which they must return. And this sun has no king. With the exception of three pretty bonus tracks added for the U.S. release, which will bring extreme excitement only to chill-out and ambient-dub DJs, Golden has few moments wasted on one ego's overindulgences.

The songs are all small-e epics, but epics nonetheless, regardless of who's credited with the composition (all four write the music, vocalist Markus being the primary morose wordsmith). Though subtle differences are, of course, discernible. Gretschmann's build on the vespertine formula fashions crushing intimacy out of raw synthesized tracks, e-drum beats, and acoustic picking, with Markus's vocal carrying much of the melodic load, addressing self-imposed seclusion ("Pick Up the Phone") or social discomfort ("Solitaire"). The Achers' solo tries rely more on stadium-sized, guitar-centric flag-waving—Micha's "Trashing Days" is reminiscent of the more plaintive moments on U2's angsty Zooropa; Markus's "One With the Freaks" is a rewrite of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979"—and neither dilutes or disturbs the overall fortune to be found herein. If anything, the big rock moments add to Golden's overall railway sway. Like just about everything else with the Notwist, there's strength in numbers, with multiple drivers and additional cars resulting in greater satisfaction. It's as though the communal feeling that most of the Achers' lyrics long for, and the futuristic blend the Notwist's sound strives to achieve, is the end station toward which the momentary "pilot" would naturally steer.

 
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