As my summer of ’08 concludes and the body surfin’ waves at the Jersey Shore and Sunset Beach come to a close and the feel good memories slowly recede into the deep recesses of my mind, there’s a few truly fine musical remembrances that stick out. Some were from a veteran Bavarian band with a weirdly deceitful dance-jeering moniker known as The Notwist.
Comin’ outta Germany some 20 years hence, The Notwist caught my attention when small New York indie label, Zero Hour, added them to an already impressive lineup of idiosyncratically talented mid-‘90s bands like Space Needle, Varnaline, and 22 Brides.
Though guitarist-vocalist Markus Acher, his brother Micha Acher (trumpet-bass), and longtime friend Mecki Messerschmid (drums) were incipiently a metallic grunge outfit, The Notwist’s ambitious ’97 U.S. breakout, 12, became a transitional step forward into experimental electronic rock. An eye-opening stripped-down display interlacing rudimentary beats, cling-clang percussive affects, liquid computer bleats, and intermittent guitar shredding, its fragile balladic vulnerability countered the implosive metal-edged volatility pummeling louder, assertive tunes.
The Notwist then went deeper into the Industrial chasm on ‘98s Shrink, skittering trip-hop beats alongside new wave guitar-keyboard figures, freeform trumpet catacombs, mellowed flute, and sonorous trombone. “Chemicals,” their most impassioned and accessible song yet, found Acher dropping emotional lyrical ruminations onto a static-y bottomed lamentation. And a reappearing espionage motif aids a few casual urban grooves. Expert keyboardist Martin Grestchmann, the singular maestro behind conquering electro-Industrial manipulators, Console, was brought onboard to widen the troikas’ musical scope.
Reportedly, The Notwist took fifteen months to devise 2002’s dramatic illumination, Neon Golden. The extra time spent was well worth the investment, as the band delivers a cohesively thematic epic stretched over thirteen Classically mood-stricken tracks. The precisely detailed whole benefits from cello, clarinet, and tabla flourishes as well as lilting techno-influenced clicks and bleeps. The crystalline title track shines brightest, layering hypnotic sitar atop majestic Anglo-folk.
Perhaps even more refined, ‘08s The Devil, You + Me may not be as radiant as its immaculate predecessor, but the thought-out arrangements and seamless flow form a sprawling thirteen-song epic. Perfect for late night summer listening, The Devil, You + Me glistens like a lone star in the cloudless sky. Although it must’ve been difficult trying to follow up Neon Golden’s glazing lucidity, the admirable eleven-song package actually broadens foregoing elemental designs and conceptual enthrall quite strikingly. The darker lyrics, courtesy of “Gloomy Planets” and ominous percussive percolator “Alphabet” bring an impending sense of trouble brewing. But ultimately, any sourly somber sentiments are whisked away by a sweet melodic intrigue that’s definitely The Notwist’s saving grace.
Acher’s deadpan Teutonic drone hasn’t changed much over time, though his upper register achieves better frilly flights of fancy. He’s effervescently sublime on “Gravity,” recalling Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch on this pastoral acoustic retreat. Somewhere along the melancholic astral plane, Acher combines the elegant splendor of Donovan’s flower power mysticism with the hushed wisp of Nick Drake’s doomed anguish, particularly on the folk-rooted slumber, “Sleep.” The warmly sung title track contains a didactic chorus reminiscent of John Lennon’s earliest solo endeavors. Despite such estimable presumptions, Acher’s lovely outpourings are all his own, especially when conveying futuristic interplanetary escapism on the chilly string-laden bossa nova, “Where In This World” (which sways like Arto Lindsay’s most exotic charmers).
Thankfully, the experimental aspects never outweigh The Notwist’s common sense ability to rely on rich symphonic interplay and sharp rhythmic schemes. Just as seminal electronic metallurgists Kraftwerk became influential Kraut-rock architects during the entire ‘70s, The Notwist are carving out their own modern niche. They’ll probably fall short in comparison to those towering figures’ breadth of ideas, galvanizing influence, and album sales, but by continually gaining technical skills and artful assurance, The Notwist will occupy at least a modest spot amongst today’s top creative craftsmen. And that might be enough right there.
This and John Fortunato’s many articles on music can be found at beermelodies.com.