If you're not familiar with Ulrich Schnauss, where have you been? Nah, just kidding. But this is the German producer's third 'proper' album by my reckoning. His form prior to this record is good: some call it 'ambient', some call it 'cheese', and some of us quite like it. 'Ambient' doesn't quite suit: the two previous albums have been too clipped, too melodic - just too damn pop - to qualify as the sometimes tuneless sprawl of 'ambient'. And this obviously leads to some accusations of cheese-mongering by some (especially British, it has to be said) people who don't regard 'synth music' as 'proper music' and are a bit suspicious of any music that comes from Europe. (Yeah, but Spagna, anybody?)
The opening track's title, 'Never Be The Same', could well be taken as a manifesto, and it's the closest that this album comes to the previous two. Lush, warm, almost choral sounds, barely discernible effected vocals; everything washing together in a kind of fuzzy morphine glow. The few seconds of distortion towards the end are a hint of things to come. 'Shine' begins with a simple piano figure against a fragile wash of synth. A vocal that's got some weird backwards effect on it, almost whispered, joins in. Hang on, is that a guitar? A cascade of synths against a cavernous beat. 'Jesus Christ on fire' a voice intones as everything stops. It's almost monastic, this. The track grows wonderfully, spiraling to a harmonised end, before a guitar pootles off into the distance in a show's-over-folks kind of way.
'Stars' reminds me a bit of Clannad - if Clannad had been German - and features a female vocalist singing in heavily accented English. 'Do you remember?' she asks, 'Or dit you forget?'. 'Kerry on', she also instructs at one point. It's perfect. It also features a marvellous violin part. In fact, towards the end the violin doesn't so much come in as nick the track and fuck off with it sharpish, prompting Herr S to shut the whole thing down. Pitch, tempo and volume all decrease. Bedtime, children. And right on cue, 'Einfeld' is the most obviously 'ambient' track so far. Synths drip like rain and swirl like fog on a melancholy November afternoon as the light is fading, but by the time we get to the end, we're curled up in front of the fire and the outside world seems a very long way away indeed. 'In Between The Years' slows the pace down even further. It's an atmosphere rather than a piece of music, a dreamy reflection. 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow' is more up tempo, and not for the first time I'm reminded of Tangerine Dream before they turned into manufacturers of processed cheese, seemingly writing music by the yard. Schnauss has always had a finely tuned sense of the epic, and just where to stop before it spills over into pomposity, and he walks that line again successfully here.
'A Song About Hope' is suitably uplifting, and features a guitar part that sizzles away in the background and a gloriously emotional, tears-in-the-eyes chord progression in the chorus. Crucially, it's never over-done. A strange, backwards-sounding noise appears towards the end to introduce a note of dischord, an idea Schnauss has often flirted with, pitting pretty harmonies against ugly noises. It works well here.
For me, 'Medusa' is the track where everything comes together, and the outstanding track on the album (although 'A Song About Hope' runs it close, but for different reasons). It's got a dark, dark feel to it, with a bassline like writhing snakes fighting for attention with a 'Loveless'-era My Bloody Valentine female vocal and bleeping synths. A guitar hacks into the program and feeds back. Played loud, the track towers and sways like a punch-drunk Godzilla. Later on, it sounds like somebody is using a spoon to dismantle a piano in a disused warehouse. It sounds massive, doom-laden, insistent, dysfunctional. psychotic, and to end with, it fractures into the Host of Seraphim briefly heralding the death of absolutely everything while somebody tries to kill them with fireworks. Breathtaking.
'Goodbye' is the morning after, and the guy who was a complete nutter last night making his apologies and leaving. He's polite and doesn't outstay his welcome, but in the back of your mind, you know he's the guy who was responsible for 'Medusa', and you're kind of pleased with the idea you'll never see him again. For some reason, the first thing you'll do after you've closed the door behind him is check that he hasn't crapped in the bath. 'For Good' closes the album. It begins with a battered acoustic guitar being strummed lazily and morphs into dreamy synths before the guitar comes back again, only this time it sounds like it's being played under water. It ends with the sound of amp hum and someone walking of of the recording studio and closing the door behind them - a nice touch.
I like this record a lot. Gone (to some extent) are the more obviously 'pop' sounds and sensibilities that we've come to expect. It's perhaps a more introspective, meditative record, where previous efforts have been more flamboyant, more euphoric. 'In All The Wrong Places', for example, would sound very out of place on this record. It's an album of greater maturity from someone flexing their muscles and looking into new things. He's learned how to be scary, for a start. But it still sounds exactly like Ulrich Schnauss. 'Difficult third album' my arse.
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