The Notwist are an excellent example of how a band can reinvent itself and create something truly special. After two hardcore punk records, the Munich-based band began expanding their sound, and for two subsequent records sounded like a guitar-centric alternative band, perfectly in keeping with the Dinosaur Jrs. of the world. 2002, however, brought Neon Golden -- a quantum leap in the band's sound where all of the influences from Sonic Youth to Autechre came into one blissful, ethereal convergence. In that third stylistic incarnation, the Notwist offered a watershed moment that sounded like Coldplay squaring off against German electro-stylists, and it worked.
12 marks the third album in that path, originally released in 1995 and now reissued (minus the bonus disc of remixes that originally accompanied the album). In many ways, you could listen to 12 and never suspect the band that was forming in the Notwist's subconscious; in other ways, hindsight lets you see the seeds starting to germinate. A gauzy haze already wraps around Markus Acher's vocals, and the band's mix of blips, bloops, and atmospherics is already at play. In a lot of ways, 12 is the lukewarm primordial ooze from which Neon Golden would spring (apologies to anyone who really likes the band's first four albums, but they really don't even come close to Neon Golden).
"Torture Day" kicks things off in a dark tone that suitably matches the album cover's Dali-meets-Bosch artwork. A low, rumbling bass line supports chiming guitars while Acher advises celebration before the torture begins. Cello and other sounds flash by in the background, making for a truly enigmatic track. It's easily 12's best example of the Notwist's developing style, but it's pretty much alone.
The rest of the album typically occupies Built to Spill/Sick of it All/Dinosaur Jr. post-rock territory (without the guitar solos). One listen to "My Phrasebook" or "Puzzle" places 12-era Notwist firmly in the mid-'90s artsy rock camp. What's more, the Notwist are fairly good at it. "M" and "Instr." both ride strong guitar riffs that could easily be adapted to hard rock, and "Noah" nicely weaves subdued sound effects and ringing guitars. Fittingly, the title track closes the album by combining most of those elements into one presentation. That said, little of 12 is even remotely transcendent; perhaps its the hindsight afforded by ears that have heard how the mid-'90s alternative boom played out, but 12 offers little that hasn't been heard before. Arguably, it probably didn't present anything that wasn't being heard then.
As a historical document, or as a side trip on the road map to Neon Golden, though, it's definitely interesting. Without hearing 12 or 1998's Shrink, it's nearly incomprehensible that a German hardcore punk band could evolve to produce something as shimmery and wondrous as Neon Golden; with those pieces of the puzzle in place, it's easier to see how the transition happened in incremental stages and not in one cataclysmic sea change. 12 is definitely worth listening to, but it's important to know going in that it now stands as a strong transitional album from one extreme to the other.