Neon Golden, the sixth album by German outfit The Notwist, has already been making waves online among file-swapping music geeks for a year. Obsessive musical elitists have been chirping about this album, either burning the MP3s for friends, or clutching their precious, overpriced German import copies of the CD, proud of their own little musical secret that only a few other North Americans knew about, feeling safe with the knowledge that when they sprung their year-end best album lists, folks would see The Notwist in their top 10, and would utter the expected, "But who are these guys?" To which the now superior-feeling hipster doofus would retort, "You mean you haven't heard of them?" It's immensely satisfying. Believe me, I've done it myself.
So over a month before the Stateside release of the album, it was already the most talked about indie recording of 2003, popping up on some notable best-of-2002 lists, including a couple here at PopMatters. Now, with Neon Golden having been out only a few weeks, the endless stampede of music critics falling over each other praising The Notwist to the highest heavens has probably started to turn off a few curious potential listeners, making it seem like it's nothing but an overhyped album that won't stand the test of time. Well, let me tell you something: every once in a long while, the geeks are right. Some critics' darlings are totally deserving of the hype, and this album is no exception.
Call it what you will, be it glitch-pop, IDM (intelligent dance music), laptop rock, what have you, Neon Golden is one of the most exquisite electronic albums to come out in ages. Comprised of singer/guitarist Markus Acher, his brother Micha on bass and horns, electronic whiz Martin Gretschmann, and drummer Mecki Messershmid, The Notwist bring an organic feel to their form of techno; like New Order, it's a total band effort that you can hear on the record, as live drums, bass, and guitars mesh seamlessly with electronic beats and synths. But the music goes much deeper than just merely dancey beats; the band throws in the odd twist here and there, all the while managing to keep the album from sounding like a psychotic kitchen-sink experiment. It's all tastefully done, and the result is sublime, the songs on the album flowing nicely.
The Radiohead-like titled "One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You Understand" begins with plucked guitar strings and what sounds like a harmonium, as Martin Acher sings lightheartedly, "Prepare your shoes not to come back soon/Prepare your heart not to stop too soon." Electric guitar comes in as well as strings and subtle electronic percussion, as the song just ambles along nicely. "Pick Up the Phone" has a more insistent electronic beat, as well as woodwinds and a memorable repeated guitar lick, while "Solitaire", with its plaintive strings, has Acher musing about the drudgery of a workaday lifestyle ("We are satisfied from Monday 'till Friday and on Sunday we cry"). "Trashing Days" blends the lazy sound of plucked banjo strings with subtle techno beats, and later, the album's title track takes things further, using a backwoods blues lick on an acoustic guitar as the basis of a song that features various wind instruments, as Acher repeats two lines like a mantra, before the song takes on a fascinating Indian raga feel, jamming for six minutes, thanks to the sound of such percussion instruments such as zarb, canjira, and cachon. The US version of Neon Golden also comes with three very good bonus tracks that don't detract from the rest of the album one bit, the most memorable one being the haunting techno instrumental "Scoop".
As good as those tracks are, a handful of songs manage to elevate Neon Golden to near-euphoric heights. "Pilot" is straight New Order redone, with its driving 4/4 beat, Micha Acher's funky, dub-influenced bass, and Markus's lovely Sumneresque singing, brilliantly masking his desolate lyrics with a catchy melody. "One With the Freaks" is the most mainstream song on the album, starting out with ticking beats offsetting Markus's sympathetic question, "Have you ever been all messed up?", before bursting in a (dare I say) Smashing Pumpkins-ish second half, as Markus's electric guitar and Messerschmid's live drumming take over. A song like this makes you wish that all the emo kids out there would try to be a little more creative. The album concludes with the absolutely beautiful "Consequence", which, like the songs on Doves' recent album The Last Broadcast, boasts a tender melody with dance beats that build up to a gentle, emotional crescendo, the likes of which U2 has been unable to recapture in the past ten years. As Markus sings in that heavenly voice of his, "Fail with consequence, lose with eloquence and smile," you can't help but smile. We're rarely this lucky to hear a song as wondrous as this.
So finally, a year after it was released in Europe, everyone in North America has a chance to see what the big deal is with this album. As word spreads, and as more people get to hear just how good Neon Golden really is, it's sure to send the music snobs scurrying to their computers to find the latest European album that won't be available here until 2004, and a Notwist backlash will probably start on message boards, if it hasn't started already. But hey, screw 'em. If they turn on The Notwist, it's their loss. Great music deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and we need more albums like this one. Neon Golden might have been on a small handful of lists at the end of 2002, but better yet, it'll be on even more at the end of 2003. This one's a keeper.