The Notwist: 12 / Shrink

Adrien Begrand

The Notwist

12 / Shrink

Label: Community
US Release Date: 2003-07-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

With their first two albums, Germany's The Notwist showed they were capable of some good, albeit ordinary, hard rock, skillfully meshing metal music with aspects of hardcore punk and early '90s alternative rock. Aside from a small handful of standout tracks, however, they're hardly consistent enough to warrant more than a cursory listen or two from fans who are more familiar with their recent, much more mellow work. Still, when you listen to all five of their albums in sequence, you're hearing one of the most remarkable rock metamorphoses in recent memory, as The Notwist blossoms right before your eyes (er, ears) from a rough, unpolished, American-sounding, alternative band to one of the best post rock acts in the business today. Their third and fourth albums, 1995's 12 and 1998's Shrink, even sound a bit ahead of their time, predating the recent trend of blending organic instrumentation with laptop samples, but unfortunately, the band's American label went under right as Shrink was coming out, and the chance at some wide recognition Stateside all but vanished, aside from a collection of positive reviews from über-hip fanzines. Now that their fabulous album Neon Golden has garnered heaps of praise over here, U.S. distributors Triage and Caroline have done a very good thing, having re-released those first four Notwist albums, thereby making it much easier for new fans to get to know these guys better.

If The Notwist's first two albums, 1991's The Notwist and 1992's Nook showed signs of steering into a slightly different direction, then their third effort, 12, is a considerably sharper turn entirely, the first very noticeable shift in the band's style. Gone altogether are the metal riffs; there's still plenty of guitar noise courtesy of singer/guitarist Markus Acher, but the emphasis is on even more of a Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr.-style noise, as opposed to the big, fat metal guitars. You hear that instantly on songs such as "My Faults" and "Puzzle", as the band awkwardly tries to mimic the post-grunge sound of the mid-'90s, with their insistent, melodic guitars interspersed with distorted noise, upbeat rhythms, and perky melodies. On "The String", though, they throw in a catchy, repeated riff and a danceable beat provided by drummer Martin Messerschmid, which makes the rather formulaic set-up a bit more palatable. However, what makes 12 such a key transition album is the fact that The Notwist dares to stretch out even further, even though it's a bit tentative at first.

On this album, they employ the services of noted laptop arranger and future member Martin Gretschmann (he of Console notoriety), who puts his programming skills to work on about half of the tracks, and as a result, you're offered a glimpse at what kind of band The Notwist will become. Gretschmann's influence is most evident on a handful of songs: The beautifully dark "Torture Day" employs a subtle techno accompaniment and tiny hints of loops underneath the sparse drums and guitar, as Markus finally has a sound that's best suited for his thin voice. "Noah" has more of a laptop feel, as Gretschmann's Autechre-like aural collages start to become more audible, more and more intertwined with the sparse arrangement of guitar and vocals. The closing track "12" has more of an organic feel, as the trio manage to sound like Radiohead before even the Oxford band themselves started to sound like Radiohead, with its dark chorus, and its sudden shift to jazzy improvisation, with strings and bass clarinet (that jazzy sound comes into full fruition on the band's next album). It's not a consistent record, but 12 marks a massive leap for a band who started off as sounding so one-dimensional.

Shrink, though, is the album that has The Notwist fully realizing their potential for the very first time. Now officially a quartet (the two Achers, Micha and Markus; the two Martins, Gretchmann and Messerschmid), the band proceeds to blend such disparate sounds as laptop cuts and bleeps, jazz, and traditional pop song structures in a way that becomes thrilling at times. Radiohead might have received the vast majority of acclaim for their similarly-styled 2000 album Kid A, but The Notwist beat them to it a couple years earlier. In between those two albums, the members of the band worked on various side projects, such as Village of Savoonga, Console, and Tied and Tickled Trio, which gives the listener a clue as to how The Notwist's sound took such a huge turn toward the experimental.

The band incorporates the gentler, more melodic style of 12's "Torture Day", and takes it further on Shrink. Gretschmann's influence is much more prominent on this record, something you hear immediately in the opening moments of the first track, "Day 7". A hypnotic melange of percussion samples plays for more than two minutes, as the rest of the band slowly comes in; the song then kicks off with Messerschmid's insistent beat, a fuzzed-out bass, and clean, chiming guitars, with Markus singing lyrics that are as sublime and aching as his vulnerable, slightly accented voice: "I can see the shore from here / I see your town, your house, and you . . . I count the letters of your name / I count the days 'til you are here again / Day 7 / And I'm love galore." The gorgeous "Chemicals" sounds exactly what New Order would sound like if they were led by as cutting edge a programmer as Gretschmann, a perfect blend of organic instrumentation, electronic tones, and cut-and-paste IDM sampling. "Another Planet", "No Encores", and the dark, enigmatic "Electric Bear" are more of the same, the guitars and bleeps engaging in a gentle give-and-take with each other.

The jazz influence on Shrink is just as prominent as the laptop programming, something you hear immediately in the instrumental "Moron". A by-the-book lounge piece, it combines bass clarinet, electric piano, a fantastic improvised sax solo, and sharp accents by muted trumpets that bring to mind Bernard Hermann's unsettling score from Taxi Driver. "N.L.", another instrumental, is more of a fusion of jazz, rock, and laptop, and as a result, fits in better with the rest of the album. "Your Signs" is a fantastic, seven minute tune, carried by a head-bobbing beat, vibraphones, bass clarinet, and some Bacharach-inspired horn flourishes.

"It shifts you, grips you," sings Markus Acher on the lovely title track, and there's no better way to describe the effect that Shrink has on the listener. A woefully underrated minor masterpiece, this album deserved a bigger audience in North America five years ago, but with the re-release of this fine album, hopefully it will become as revered as the masterful Neon Golden. For those people who are curious enough to take the time to lose themselves in The Notwist's early albums, they'll discover some very differing past incarnations of a band who has continued to improve with each subsequent release. At this rate, the next official Notwist album should be something to behold.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.