Chances are, if you're reading this review, you already either own, or at least have heard The Notwist's most recent album Neon Golden. A stupendous marriage of post-rock, laptop, and traditional pop songwriting, the German band's fifth album is easily one of the best albums of 2002, or 2003, depending on what side of the Atlantic you live on, or how savvy you are in the file-sharing department. There's a reason why Neon Golden sounds so accomplished, so assured; the fact is, The Notwist has been recording together since 1989. Band biographies always emphasize the fact that they started off as a punk/metal power trio, but when you listen to their current effort, the thought of them doing such a thing is very difficult to fathom. If your first introduction to The Notwist was through Neon Golden, then the possibility of hearing them do metal has to make you just the tiniest bit curious. How does a band go from metal riffs and fast drumming, to one of the best, most sublime post-rock bands in the world today?
Thanks to both Caroline and Triage Records, North American listeners can hear for themselves what the band was like in the '90s, as their first four albums have been re-released Stateside. The Notwist's evolution over the past 12 years or so is nothing short of fascinating, especially when you take into consideration what kind of band these guys were at the very beginning. Keyboard and programming whiz Martin Gretschmann didn't join The Notwist until later that decade, and before that, the band was strictly a rock trio, consisting of brothers Markus (Guitar/vocals) and Micha (bass) Acher, and drummer Martin Messerschmidt, and on their albums The Notwist and Nook, they sound about as far from their current incarnation as a band could get.
If you listen to something as beautiful as Neon Golden's "Consequence", and then pop in the band's first album, the difference is jaw-dropping. You're hit over the head with a pounding, thunderous drum beat, and a killer metal riff, courtesy of Markus. That song, "Is It Fear", sounds heavily influenced by European metal and Canadian thrash pioneers Voivod especially, with its combination of muscular guitar riffs, deft time signature changes, and vocals sung in broken English. However, the rest of the album is just as surprising, as the band doesn't just stick to the Euro-metal sound.
Songs like "Bored", "Crack It Open", "Think for Yourself", and "Be Reckless" are some good imitations of American melodic punk such as Fugazi and early Hüsker Dü, but are ultimately made weak by Markus's earnest, yet cliché-ridden lyric content, which basically say what's already been said in hundreds of punk songs ("We are bored / Always bored"). Although The Notwist is a mildly likeable album, it was hardly groundbreaking for something coming from 1991. The only hint of the band's future sound you can hear is in Markus's plaintive voice, which often sounds very oddly matched with his roaring guitar riffs. The songs that manage to work best are the ones where his vocal melodies aren't as overwhelmed by heavy guitars, like on the racing "I Have Not Forgotten You" (which boasts a pummeling, 80-second intro that would make Anthrax proud), the very Hüsker Dü-ish "Seasons", and the well-crafted punk-pop of "Nothing Like You".
1992's Nook continues the band's evolution, but only very minimally. On this album, the production is much slicker, more powerful, and is driven home immediately on the Mercyful Fate-meets-Helmet opening track "Belle de L'Ombre/Walk On". However, the focus on the rest of this album is less on metal and more on the very-much-in-vogue American alternative rock, as songs like "Unsaid, Undone" and "No Love" take on a blatant Dinosaur Jr. quality, with the emphasis put on Markus's slick guitar solos and laid-back, J. Mascis-like singing style. Meanwhile, "Welcome Back" and "This Sorry Confession" continue the same Fugazi/early Hüsker Dü obsession the trio showed on their first album, and hints of Sonic Youth's dissonant experimentation start to creep into tracks like "One Dark Love Poem" and "I'm a Whale".
The most striking shift in style occurs on the great song "The Incredible Change of Our Alien", which became a minor hit for the band. It opens with ominous, insistent acoustic guitar strumming, some dark, repeated bass notes, and an oddly incongruous banjo plunking away (presaging the similar use of banjo on the Neon Golden album nearly a decade later). The song then erupts in waves of distorted guitars, as Acher chants the surreal verses, repeating each verse twice before moving on to the next, the effect becoming almost mantralike, his chanting voice sounding like a male version of Eastern European chanteuse Nico: "He tried to be like us / He tried to kill all our friends / We locked him in a cage but he was still loud so we left / We don't know him anymore." Out of all the songs on both of The Notwist's albums, this is the one that shows the band's real potential the best, but as we all know by now, it's barely the tip of the iceberg.
So while both The Notwist and Nook are hardly mediocre albums, and are smart enough to not get carried away with the whole punk thing, they're impossible to fully enjoy when you already know how great The Nowist will become on their subsequent albums. The first two records are basically for only the most devoted fans of the band; any other curious listeners would be better off downloading the best tracks, especially "The Incredible Change of Our Alien", which is a real gem. It's best to save your money for the band's next two albums, which both raise the bar considerably.