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To Rococo Rot

Hotel Morgen

(Domino; US: 18 May 2004; UK: 19 Apr 2004)

It’s strange and even a bit sad to think that at the most basic level music ultimately comes down to mathematics. German trio To Rococo Rot seem to know this, but rather than be saddened by it, they’re encouraged. The group’s fifth album, Hotel Morgen sounds like complex calculus set to music: every syncopated rhythm, pling, plong and chord is in exactly the right place, where only it could be. Though the arrangements are sparse, they give the impression that they took years of careful planning to come up with. What’s impressive is how warm and chummy the effects are. Maybe it’s that the band use vintage synthesizers instead of sleek digital models and ground their compositions with natural percussion and guitar. Or maybe it’s their chemistry as a group (two of them are brothers). But on Hotel Morgen, To Rococo Rot make instrumental electronic music that sounds almost acoustic.

Maybe it says something that many of the instruments used to make this album haven’t been manufactured for years. Throughout, warm Wurlitzer electric pianos hold things down while classic Roland, PPG and ARP synths fill in the details with playful bits of melody and occasional white noise. An old drum machine punctuates the tunes with pulses, hisses and clicks.

Clearly, though, To Rococo Rot are doing more than just showing off their nifty collection of gear. “Cosimo” is almost a bossa nova. “Tal” comes gurgling through the speakers with a slightly melancholy feel, although repeated listening reveals an electronic birdsong in the background. A cycling, reflexive guitar line and probing synths highlight the sunnier “Sol”. Hotel Morgen‘s most interesting moments come when the trio edge a little bit closer to dance music without sacrificing the songs’ nuances. “Miss You”, with its sharp, disco-influenced bassline, ponderous guitar and electronic percussion, sounds like a New Order song that’s been stripped of its vocals and miniaturized. “Bologna” gives the utterly unique impression of Kraftwerk attempting a ska rhythm while a rivet gun drills away in the distance.

It’s all nice—very nice. To Rococo Rot have an amazing sense of control over their music. The question is, is it too much control? It’s easy to imagine Hotel Morgen playing in the background at a café or in a cozy sunroom, but does it qualify as anything more than very high-end window dressing? After all, there’s very little in the way of hooks or dynamics. Long-time fans would argue that looking for hooks and dynamics here is missing the point, and they’d probably be right. One thing’s for sure: if anyone can make mathematics sound sublime, it’s To Rococo Rot.

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.

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28 Jun 2010
To Rococo Rot's commitment to averting ornament has become such a refined methodology that it now seems to be the substance of many of the pieces, rather than the ideology encompassing them.

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