Ulrich Schnauss became the toast of the indie cognoscenti with the 2004 release of A Strangely Isolated Place. The attention was not unmerited, as Schnauss’ second album was quite good. The juxtaposition of ambient electronics with post-rock textures to create slightly woozy, surprisingly psychedelic compositions of minor but ineffable beauty was a winning formula that ensured an enthusiastic response from the same critical establishment who had, just months earlier, championed M83 for similar reasons.
Far Away Trains Passing By is Schnauss’ first album, released in 2001 and long-unavailable in the United States. It comes equipped with the prerequisite bonus disc filled with rarities, handily plugging the holes we didn’t even know our Schnauss collections had. It’s a nice package (although it could have benefited from the bare-minimum of liner notes informing us of the bonus tracks’ pedigrees), but the material itself is nowhere near as strong as that presented on A Strangely Isolated Place.
While there’s no denying that Schnauss’ breakthrough record was an eminently satisfying work, his first album is far less developed, almost rudimentary in places. This is not to imply that simplicity is itself a sin, but this specific kind of simplicity has simply been done before. Most of the tracks on Far Away Trains are bereft of the psychedelic textures that made his second album so compelling. In their place we have serviceable but elementary patterns of low-to-mid-tempo beats, sparse basslines and dreamy synth patterns. It’s almost hard to go wrong with this kind of material, but anyone who has a sustained interest in this music probably already owns a copy of Moby’s first Voodoo Child record, The End of Everything, or any of Boards of Canada’s records, or the Thievery Corporation’s, or any of a number of artists who have picked up where the Cocteau Twins left off.
Which is not to say that Schnauss’ contributions to the genre are insignificant. To the contrary, the fact that his material generally avoids the dub reggae bass-patterns of most second-wave trip hop, the adult-contemporary vocal stylings of many post-Massive Attack downtempo groups, or the self-conscious weirdness of most IDM-tinged downtempo makes for an enjoyable listen. But there’s also something tiring about the way Schnauss sticks to such a repetitive sonic palette. Most of the exotic elements adopted by the downtempo and trip-hop acts of recent years, while they may have become overly familiar, were initially utilized in an effort to keep the genre fertile and interesting. By eschewing all but the simplest drum patterns and echoing synthesizer lines, Schnauss’ first record lands uncomfortably close to the New Age side of the downtempo border. A Strangely Isolated Place is a far more sonically varied album, and it benefits from an expanded musical vocabulary.
Which is, again, not to say that this is a bad album. A few tracks especially stick out—“Between Us And Them” actually attempts a pseudo-breakbeat mid-tempo vibe, and “Nobody’s Home” succeeds by stacking an M83-esque bass drone atop a chilled beat that pops like a screwed & chopped Neptunes joint. On the second disc, “Nothing Happens In June” varies the tempo to interesting effect by incorporating a percolating microbreak reminiscent of To Rococo Rot. The densely layered samples in “Crazy For You” hint at the increased complexities of his later album.
Anyone who enjoyed A Strangely Isolated Place will probably enjoy this as well, albeit to a lesser degree. It is not a bad album, but if it hadn’t come from an artist who has already proven himself by producing substantially better material, it would probably pass without comment.