Rhine Gold is an engrossingly original album, though it feels more like a nascent version of a concept that still has yet to develop.
It's a grower.
If you had asked me to describe Rhine Gold in three words, those would be the ones I'd use. I didn't quite know how to react to the album at first; it's unique enough that my dastardly tendency to classify the album failed, and it was odd enough that I wasn't sure or not whether I was actually enjoying the music. The album presented something of an intellectual challenge for me. Now, by no means has this record fundamentally changed how I understand music. But its originality is striking. So striking, in fact, that after each listen I found something new to appreciate. One could call this record "indie" or some variant of that broad genre, but in reality there's no need to. Rhine Gold sounds like, well, Rhine Gold. While this record isn't a masterpiece, over multiple repeated listens I found myself more and more drawn to the engrossing music within.
The Denmark-based Choir of Young Believers, led by vocalist Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, with this record have set themselves out to be some innovators to be on the watch for. I pegged '70's folk rock, indie, Eastern melodies, and, of all things, krautrock in the record's 54-minute length, all of them situating together comfortably but never all at once. There's a strong vintage sensibility throughout, especially in the record's excellent production value. Few records I've heard capture a retro vibe whilst also maintaining a crisp, clean quality throughout. On the album's strongly retro tracks, particularly the folky "Paint New Horrors", this pays dividends. The song's beautiful, piano-led coda is the best individual moment on the album.
That track is also a fantastic showcase for Makrigiannis' vocals, which are but one of the many highlights of Rhine Gold. "The Wind is Blowing Needles", more than any of the other tracks, lives up to the "Choir" part of the band's name. Though the track feels a lot longer than it is, its midsection is memorable for a back-and-forth vocal exchange between Makrigiannis and the rest of the band. Where Makrigiannis really shines is on the album standout "Have I Ever Truly Been Here", the kind of acoustic, existential ballad that one would listen to while gazing at the stars. Vocally, Rhine Gold is Makrigiannis' show, despite the inferences one might make based off of the band's name. Suffice it to say, they're a different type of choir.
However, as successful as Rhine Gold is on the whole, it does have its setbacks. There's a prevalence of Eastern melodies early on in the album that for some reason fade away after the 10 minute motorik-heavy "Paralyse". This is unfortunate, as those melodies help make the first half of the album so strong. Lead single "Patricia's Thirst" mixes that melodicism with an indie-pop structure to a memorable effect, proving that complex songwriting doesn't have to come at the expense of catchiness. The latter half of the record has its strong points, in particular "Paint New Horrors", but there's something of a melodic discontinuity after "Paralyse". A record as intricate as this one naturally has a lot of elements at play, but it's clear there's still plenty of room for the band to refine the material they have here.
Another thing that could be improved on here is the length of some songs. As much of a prog nerd as I am, I am not instantly going to fall in love with a track like "Paralyse", which on paper sounds pretty awesome. A ten-minute indie Krautrock jam? Why yes, I think I'll sign up! And while they absolutely nail the beat and feel of Kraftwerk, the few oddball detours the song takes (namely a strange acoustic passage) derail the momentum of the song, which is a problem because momentum is kind of the motorik's thing. The title track also suffers this problem; though it features an entrancing, doomy piano, it concludes the album on a rather incomplete note.
Still, a band aiming for the sky will hit the roof on occasion, and overall Rhine Gold is an excellent outing for this Danish choir. Even as I conclude this review the album is still growing on me; while I do think there are some problems with it, by the end of the year I could come around and embrace it as one of 2012's strongest offerings. There are many subtleties that can only be appreciated after listening to Rhine Gold several times, and so far I've found something new to like each time.Rhine Gold is an album that demands scrutiny, and it's definitely worth taking the time to engage in. I'm looking forward to see what these Danish songwriters have up their sleeves.