Ulrich Schnauss - Goodbye
Ben Gilbert 13/05/2007
For years now Germany has been the electronica Mecca, certainly the most influential in upping the ante state side, and few more prestigious than Ulrich Schnauss, with the stellar ambient work of 2003's A Strangely Isolated Place. It was always going to be a task to follow that up, and along some four years later has finally come Goodbye to attempt the feat.
In that vein it hasn't wandered too much from the moulded patterns of its predecessor. 'Never Be The Same' has whispers of the shoegazer of Slowdive and the swirling ethereal tinkling of a marginally less decipherable Cocteau Twins, the texture and slow zen beat backdrops of Global Communication. Most of it sounds like a dead ringer for 76:14 the way it's layered. The nucleus is very soothing if unspectacular place to start things off, better experienced on headphones but no doubt ravishing in the right live setting despite the lacking majesty of watching a guy on a laptop do his party piece.
Windswept piano falls on the ears in thick cavalcades, “Shine so fragile” in mesmeric German spattered over the top hypnotically, and definitely the shoegazer twist has pirouetted in amongst the notes more emphatically than ever before in Ulrich's repertoire. Uplifting and full of luscious reverb as it progresses, as a big Slowdive fan I can't help but lap up these kind of soundscapes, and this represents my second favourite point on the album, but a unusually for shoe gazer I found myself longing for a pacier vitality to go with the volume.
So on comes 'Stars.' The first two tracks having had the innocence to them of someone haphazardly copulating with blindfolded wood nymphs, this turns up with the distinctive change of pace in the intro I was looking for, but still that Germanic hybrid of the Cocteau Twins is hard to shake and it mellows out, its like choking an old lady and the same tired idea gives up the ghost and drifts into a distorted Pet Shop Boys esque vocal.
The sound traipses cheerily through increasingly ambitious sheets of drum and melody but there's nothing significantly deviant about it, and it proves as friendly and airy as the openers, then suddenly with the dexterous avalanche of strings and jet plane gusto at the end stretching the volume of instruments to breaking point, it proves the definite highlight of the whole album, no question.
'Einfield.' There's that twinkling I mentioned. Classic Schnauss this, my speakers are positively throbbing as it takes flight, a musical feather bed, no full bodied foreground vocals this time, plain fragmented voices haemorrhaging under the delicacy of the beat.
The tidy and succinct 'In Between The Years' is more shimmering bed time fare, with the twinge of atmospheric layers slowly worming their way in and becoming the foreground, much more machinal in habitual tone as it tucks itself in, more Amber era Autechre than the shoegazer electronica prior but a little more dense. It tumbles away into the pacier goodness of 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,' triangles, waves lashing the rocks, haunting synth. Its like being communicated to by an unusual animal in a pleasant tropical setting, fruity and affable. Everything is so searingly jolly I'm starting to become uncomfortable, its more like a spa retreat than an album. I like to submit to ambient but it feels like a homage to the guys I already listen to, and the guys Ulrich likes, and all the confidence problems he says he felt frustrated with in the studio but had usurped doesn't feel its vanquished to me at all. I hear this and I think he panicked and went paint by numbers.
It could almost be coconuts rather than a glockenspiel lining the start of 'A Song About Hope.' I guess it irritates me because it's *Ulrich.* From Stars Of The Lid I would tolerate this because its more minimalism based, but where's the change up? He has more to him. It limps along tunefully but never goes anywhere I want. 'Medusa' increases the volume and static, then it stumbles into the slow drone of 'Goodbye' before it flourishes into another tinkling melodic affair which represents a high point for me on the album, shades of Ooberman twee vocals but it made me smile, just about the longest on the album, fantastic rhythm. For Good has sulky guitar on it that made me half expect them to truck out Connor Oberst until the familiar shoegazer vocals kick in within the undercurrents, and generally its hideously underwhelming although it folds out nicely enough its so LIKE everything else on the album it doesn't really sign of with any loveable panache, with a little Books style sign off at the end of some studio noises. Snore.
But here's the thing with Ulrich's new album. I feel like I'm reviewing the average footballing or wrestling sim rather than music, because as much as I'm enjoying it, the only words I can hear in my head are 'well trod ground.' This is pleasant enough, the usual ambient with shoegazer vocals slopped in, but I find it warm without ever feeling as invigorated as I do by more thoroughbred shoegazer fare, the lazy choices like the Chapterhouses and My Bloody Valentines of the world, because the pace doesn't change enough or undulate enough with sensible use of the vocals to really hit you between the eyes with some of the better tracks like 'Stars.'
There's precious anything to dislike, but even less to stoke the fires. Whilst each individual track is pretty well paced, it kaleidoscopes without challenge or thought for my ears, not like one unified idea, but one guy without another idea. He has got a little comfortable as melodic as all this is and something I could play to my kids at night or listen to happily, I don't know how often I would revisit it, the effects are always the same, the climaxes the same, I'm left wanting. It could have been the cutting room floor discards on a bonus disc for A Strangely Isolated Place bar the vocals.
When I was wrapping up the review, I found myself drawn to hearing Squarepusher's curtain jerker Iambic 5 Poetry, lusting for a structured crescendo to go with the floating melodies. Desperately, something that blows up in a predictable but more post rock, emphatic fashion to make you appreciate the swirling voices, a card overplayed quick and early like a Sajid Mahmood slower ball to lose all impact.
Nonetheless, there are far, far worse introductions to this sort of shoegazer ambient, and it would still be a worthy addition to your collection. Thumbs firmly in the middle