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.