Friday, 25 January 2013

Ulrich Schnauss - A Long Way To Fall

 

While this may come as something of a bizarre coining, what I admire most about the work of German-born producer, engineer and musician Ulrich Schnauss, is his knack - or perhaps because of some compulsive abiding to a promise made at an earlier age - to stand fairly a distant from the two genres he is often associated with when brought to the discussion table: chillout and shoegaze. Schnauss is a man who, musically, comes across as one who longs for discovery and is not only unsure of where it is exactly he's supposed to go, but also how long it's going to take. His music then, comes off like a connotative freeze-frame of some monotonous erased-past drifter - sounds of laden electronics caught against a tide of reverb-coated effects. But it's Schnauss' methodology of looking out on the World as more a dilemma to be dealt with than a host of varying physical/musical ecologies, that reveals more an aim to repel what is around, as opposed to reflect it. On Schnauss' 3rd [solo] album 'Goodbye', the title's fairly simple notion of easing one's self for the end reflected rather a hidden intensity - passing strays of vocals and dusted blurs of sonic textures giving the album's one-word title a thousand-word illustration of the shut-out-from-wider-society difficulty to truly move on. It's been nearly six years since Schnauss came to the recording studio alone - and almost twelve months to the day since his fairly underwhelming and majorly sketchy collaboration with Mark Peters was released - but the return to solo material sees Germany's wanderer conjure a sound that, instead, entices more an investigative reminder to his earlier exploration in chillout-orientated electronica.

But given how this album is a more welcome return to traditional analog electronics - Schnauss himself being quoted as describing the album as one that would 'celebrate the synthesizer' - Schnauss remains strong on his usage of reverb and trawling effects to add distance to his sound. Opening track Her And The Sea opens up with a dashing of minimized, eery synths that soon begin to blossom out through the smothering of cloudy distortion and crunchy, crumbly drums that give the track what feels like a two-state physicality at times. Focus on beats and rhythm is what identifies this piece, yet it doesn't take away from what is a fairly ascending trawl of analog melodies and fogged-up production. Second track Broken Homes has more of a focused stance to its progression, elements of micro-house, contemporary techno and even glitch coming into play in Schnauss' song-writing and idea generation. There's certainly more of a sequential flow here and the way the low murmur of more analog sounds nestles quietly in the background - as opposed to glowing like some million watt halogen light, in the foreground - feels more the better usage of effects. The somewhat backward-played inclusion of vocals doesn't really add anything or make me feel a sense of emotive addition, but I find the switch from more ambient passages to the opposing of hard-hitting, percussive beats, to be the great appeal of a track like this.

Like A Ghost In Your Own Life feels ever the more the archetypal example of Schnauss' skill at combining melody and layering to well-adorned use. While there's a clear driven emphasis on the track's arrhythmic clattering of drums and how they create the track's overall emphatic feeling of a blissful daze, it's the way the German can still create so many different tones and shades of colour to fit the beat that works best of all. There's such a lavish flurry of sonic textures and droning distortion, the potential overuse of effects - and how it feels ever the more ill-placed or unnecessary - actually feels rather satisfying. But it's the way the track by the latter half begins to take more of a conventional melodic approach in how it switches between tone and has more of a structural switch that works well amid the track's encompassing atmosphere. The title track certainly feels like it aims to continue the previous track's line of thought; the somewhat hazy positioning of beats amid the clouding of reverb and distortion, certainly fitting the bill for what I've experienced previous. And while I'd be quick to point out that this decision-making in how synths and layering play a part, in regards to one another, is nothing Schnauss has never worked with in past records, I feel that his emphasis more on synthesizer usage (and giving the post-production work second-place priority) actually gives the melody and rhythm of the music space to breathe.

I say this, because while I am emphatic in being drawn to music that's able to build such tremendous atmosphere and means to engage with its listener's psychological state - through the tones and textures it conjures up - if it's the only element that tends to be fulfilled and accomplished throughout an album, the feeling of laziness, or worse, pretentiousness can unfortunately begin to garner in my mind. Especially in the reaches of chillout and downtempo electronica, the genres tend to be burden with more of a sense of proving themselves over their other electronic sub-genre counterparts. Fortunately, Schnauss appears willing to remove himself from blurring the borders of his palette purely for the sake of atmosphere. The track I Take Comfort In Your Ignorance is by far one of his best pieces of music to date, not just because it's a diversion from his regular foundry as a musician and producer. True, the somewhat surprising introduction of electric guitars does make for a pleasant introductory opening, but it's Schnauss' ability to embed this change in instrumentation to meet the needs of the more contrasting solitude of electronic sounds, that gives the music a more broader and accomplished dimension. The music feels a lot more compelling because of it, as if it's aiming rather than mindlessly wandering about a space; the synergy between guitar and synthesizer works to push the track as opposed to just nudging it somewhat on the shoulder, hoping for movement. And the way the track closes off with more of a grittier, rustier, metal-on-metal tone of beats and it conjures more of a darker and sinister state of mind for the music to lie within. The way the percussion builds and continues to act somewhat monotonously against the pushing and pulling of the metallic synthetics ends up building more tension about the piece.

Likewise, with a track like The Weight Of Darkening Skies, Schnauss' initial focus on more synthesized sounds and electronically-driven pacing feels increasingly fulfilling as the track progresses. Its button-pressing knob-turning innocence in how the sounds generate initially gives the piece something of a young and potentially naive mentality. But the way the lacing of effects adds even more personal weight to the music, gives it an overwhelming mature and self-conscious awareness. And as mentioned, even when a track like this returns to using such things as reverb and effect processing to add even more sonic textures and less clarity to the track, it doesn't necessarily sour or ruin the pacing and overall momentum of the music. Rather, it gives it more of a thorough and punchier extroversion - its integrity, rather than fading away, actually gains a lot more in its thickness and quite possibly in its brutality as an extroverted piece. Above all though, it still holds enough of a somber and stately ambience to maintain something of a steady, but lofty positive mood.

And given how uplifting and successive the album has delivered itself through the latter half of its duration, the finisher A Ritual In Time And Death ends on something of a more suggestive and questioning state of thought. Its glitchy, frosty spray of beats paves the way for the music's centre-piece of cosmic, disco-like lacing of synthesizers that feel ever the more like the giddy little kid trying out his first ever 303 or 808 and knowing not what's about to come out from the other side. But again, what starts as something of an amateurishly nostalgic romance of electronics actually paves the way for Schnauss to carve something which feels far more fulfilling and understanding given its focus on electronic beats. Electronics continue to muster that similar journeying awe of tone as the track gradually builds into a star-struck voyage of glittered percussion and glowing synths that works well to the German's contextual stance amid the fog and the dust of the melodic unknown.

While the German musician and producer has iterated many a time that 'A Long Way To Fall' is more the result of his return to electronic-orientated listening habits - and the rediscovering of his love for the genre - I myself feel like this album is the result of a mature combination of interests. Both this supposed previous love of previous, and ultimately what was his own personal discovery of more structural rock-aesthetic music that, most notably, appeared on his previous album. And while Schnauss makes it out to suggest that perhaps we may not see another album like his 2007 masterpiece (sad face), what we have here is by no means a safe sound or even one that suggests perhaps a fear of expansion. Rather, the sounds are indeed more open and varied, and yet miraculously still find the will to stay true to what is the man's core philosophy of grand, dream-inducing soundscapes that vary in transparency, but hold the same integral emotion and means of escapism, that the real often invokes in us. Because of this, in regards to what may be deemed the more chilled and atmospheric music of his back-catalog, this is an album that achieves that sound and brings about even more hints at what could be obtained - and perhaps discovered - about what lies amid that uncertain fog we become increasingly more enthralled by. With a man like Ulrich Schnauss, not only will you find yourself sharing the same level of intrigue and blissful curiosity to discover it, with an album such as this, you'll enter that ambiguous space and, perhaps through experience or maybe just by sudden realization, never want to leave.
~Jordan

8.0

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