By: Eric Greenwood
Having undergone inexplicable facelifts over its decade-long, five-album existence, Germany’s The Notwist is barely recognizable as the same band that churned out semi-industrial punk-metal back in the early 1990’s. Somewhere along the way, though, The Notwist, like countless post-punk outfits before it, slowly acquiesced to the dance culture, and, instead of playing catch-up with all the passing trends, has pioneered its way right into the cutting edge of modern electronic pop by way of post-rock experimentalism. And Neon Golden effortlessly leaves its peers in the dust.
Neon Golden, The Notwist's sixth album, is a beautifully melancholic record, as it embraces earnest post-punk structures, light folk, gorgeous melodies, and hip, rhythmic propulsions. The marriage of squishy electronics and somber folk music is not a new idea, but rarely has it been this breathtakingly effective. Beth Orton and Everything But The Girl have both been tagged as the leading purveyors of breezy electronic/folk fusion, but they tend to use dance beats as showy afterthoughts. The Notwist, on the other hand, not only underscores its haunting pop songs with skittered beats and broken rhythms, courtesy of Martin Gretschmann (A/K/A Console), but it also uses the rhythms as focal points to counter its elegiac melodies.
Every single song is an hummable masterpiece of pop experimentation. Markus Archer's voice is languid and serene- simple and unassuming. He thinks of it strictly as an utilitarian device. He sings softly like Stuart Murdoch or Nick Drake, but his German accent quickly stymies any further comparisons. Archer claims he sings in English so that the emphasis won't be on the lyrics, but that trick only works in his homeland. Most of the rest of the world, however, will cherish his beautiful, gray poetry and cleverly unorthodox phrasing: "in your world my feet are out of step/and my arms won’t move, my hands won’t grab/I will never read your stupid map/so don’t call me incomplete- you are the freak" ("One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You'll Understand"). Archer can count himself amongst those rare singers whose words actually carry as much weight as the melodies do.
The most frustrating thing about Neon Golden is that it's only ten songs long, which has resulted in countless replays. But with each listen, new sounds emerge and, consequently, the melodies sink in deeper and deeper. I've awoken many mornings singing various songs off Neon Golden to myself. The band's minimal approach is best represented by the opener, "One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You'll Understand." Strings underscore Archer's odd pronunciations and lightly strummed guitar. At first it sounds like baroque pop with very little in the way of electronics, but midway through the song a wood block (of all things) hypnotizes you, as the arsenal of effects trickles in slowly. The opening riff of "Pilot" puts the New Order cards on the table, and The Notwist shows off its surprisingly commercial songwriting chops. Half of these songs, given the proper promotion and distribution, would easily be radio smashes…
"Pick Up The Phone" is another obvious single. The "Strawberry Fields"-sounding mellotron that opens the song quickly fades beneath a simple acoustic riff, as Archer begins another plaintive verse. The twitching electronics spring up in the midst of the verse and yet the song still feels spacious and lo-fi. And the chorus is so catchy you'll be hard pressed to avoid singing it to yourself the rest of the day: "pick up the phone/and answer me at last/today, I will step out of your past." Low-end fuzz and scratchy, uneven beats try to remove the glaze of Archer's lament but end up merely complimenting the self-effacing melancholia instead. Pure genius. Hints of Radiohead's recent ventures into the world of electronics bubble up to the surface in the semi-aggressive "This Room." Solid, masculine beats stutter along with jangly, indie rock guitars, as Archer unveils yet another unbelievably catchy verse. It's just too good.
Perhaps, the most glorious moment on Neon Golden is the seventh track, "One With The Freaks." Sure, it sounds like New Order in one of its organic moods (i.e. when it uses real drums) with bright blazing guitars that surge above a small and innocuous vocal line, but it's done so pitch-perfectly well that it sounds absolutely unique. The build-up in the verse to the chorus is spine-chillingly good. Hundreds of listens later and I still get the same feeling when I hear it. How such a simple line ("have you ever been all messed up?/have you ever?) could be made to sound so affecting is somewhat of a mystery. I suppose Archer's voice is just so entreating and hypnotic that it's impossible not to become wrapped up in his maudlin world. The title track delves even deeper into the dark/experimental side of The Notwist. More mellotron and harshly plucked acoustic guitars create a spacious and psychedelic atmosphere, as Archer recites just two lines over and over: "neon golden/like all the lights/don't leave me here for I glow/neon golden."
The final two songs are sublimely orchestrated. Archer's voice floats above the den of strings and programmed beats in "Off The Rail", as though his vocals and the music were created independently of one another, yet they somehow meld together into a fluid and natural flow. The mournful tone of "Consequence" is a fitting closer. Repetitive electronics pave the way for a mod-ish jangle of guitars. Archer lays it on thick here, pleading: "never leave me paralyzed, love/leave me hypnotized, love", as the music drops out dramatically. These people know what they are doing. If you feel manipulated emotionally, at least you can take comfort in the fact that these are clever arrangements with complex instrumentation wed to unbelievably sharp melodies. Not many bands can lay claim to such gifts much less produce an album this extraordinary, so take a chance on it.