Music

'Sowas Von Egal' Shines a Spotlight on the Undergroud German Synthpop Scene of the Early '80s

The most interesting aspect of Sowas Von Egal is the tracks that focus on the rigid, guttural, tribal yet highly danceable electro-industrial sound that was exemplified by the German DAF and Belgian Front 242.

Sowas Von Egal: German Synth Wave Underground 1980-1985
Various Artists

Bureau B

2 November 2018

Without the music that was being produced in Germany in the 1970s and '80s, EDM, synthpop, and scores of other subgenres would not exist as we know them today. Connie Plank, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream are just a few of the bigger names that helped define an entire era of music, and beyond. The influence of Soviet-era Germany, and in particular Berlin, over electronic music was so great that the likes of Bowie, Depeche Mode, and others came there to get in on the aura.

It is not surprising then, to find that there were many releases by lesser-known, underground, and one-off German synth acts, put out in small quantities by small independent labels. And it is not surprising that many of these have made their way into modern DJ sets and become much-sought-after cult items in the process. Think of it as Rare Groove for the Sequential Circuits set.

Now, a couple of Hamburg-based entities—the record label Bureau B and the event organizers Damaged Goods (not to be confused with the UK indie label of the same name) – have combined forces to put together Sowas Von Egal, a collection of 14 rare German synth tracks of early '80s vintage. The title translates in English to "It Doesn't Matter". That may be a reference to the tracks' and artists' uncelebrated status, but it is pretty accurate on another level, too. In terms of production and aesthetics, nothing on Sowas Von Egal is groundbreaking or particularly eye-opening. It does not reveal some hence-undiscovered invisible forces or underground sound in electronic music. Everything here aligns with what was being produced by the less-esoteric, even well-known German and British artists of the era.

These tracks fit loosely into what has been given the post hoc name of chillwave, which is just another way of describing the sparse, often cold sound that early synthesizers made. The vocals are all in German, which if anything adds to the overall visceral effect of the music.

With old-school analog synthesizers and metronomic beats as common denominators, Sowas Von Egal still showcases a fair amount of variety. Träneninvasion's "Sentimental" features the live bass, hissing drum machines, and quirky synth effects of early OMD, while Silberstreif's moody yet melodic "Bei dir ist noch Licht" threatens to turn into Depeche's "Photographic" at every turn. The subject matter of El Deux' "Computermädchen" is obviously, maybe shamelessly, a nod to Kraftwerk, but its swirling synths and earnest vocals are agreeable nonetheless. "1000 gelbe Tennisbälle" by 08/15, with its percolating programmed rhythm and punchy keyboards, sounds like something from an early New Order EP. While the Brits obviously owed a huge debt to the German innovators, here it sounds more like the Germans returning the favor.

It is easy to overlook the fact New Wave and post-punk were still running their course in the early '80s as well. Tracks like Blaue Matrosen's "Moderne Man" and "Liebe, Triebe, Diebe" by Schwellköper supplement the synths with terse, chugging guitars that recall those styles.

The most interesting aspect of Sowas Von Egal, though, is the tracks that focus on the rigid, guttural, tribal yet highly danceable electro-industrial sound that was exemplified by the German DAF and Belgian Front 242. New Dimension's "Stuttgart Schwarz" is an almost relentless barrage of arpeggiated synth and stark, computer-aided vocals. Matthias Schuster's "Für alles auf der Welt" channels the apocalyptic disco of DAF's classic "Der Mussolini". The most enjoyable, if not exactly the best, track on Sowas Von Egal, though, is "Der Russen Kommen" from Berlin Express. A strangely pertinent mix of synth pulses, harsh beats, and blasts of pent-up guitar punctuated by calls of "Alarm, alarm, die Russen kommen!", the track was translated into English and released as "The Russians Are Coming" by the Portrait imprint of Epic Records, the same label that handled Cyndi Lauper and Sade. Fascinating.

The decades-old, often vinyl-sourced tracks on Sowas Von Egal have been painstakingly remastered to sound as clean as possible. Still, they are not something most synthpop fans would want to listen to all that often, yet as products of a musical era and a country that had an outsized influence on it, they are more than curios. And they definitely would sound great dropped into the middle of an EDM set they unknowingly helped inspire.

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