Technically Neon Golden, the sixth album from Germans The Notwist, should be an unequivocal disaster. Laced with meandering acoustic guitars, mournful vocals, post-punk rock, crisp electronica, flutes, dub bass, saxophones, the occasional breakbeat and banjo, the potential for their tender tunes to descend into a chaotic and indulgent nightmare of arty noodling is exceptionally high. However, having spent 15 months in the studio putting their unlikely components together, the outcome couldn't be more transfixing or beautiful; a dreamy world of atmospheric lo-fi lullabies, where hazy pop melodies drift by on an eccentric flow of sensual bleeps, whooshes and crackles. Even when Neon Golden strays towards more traditional rock, Markus Acher's downtrodden yet hopeful vocals, and his achingly sweet melodies persist, as do the sumptuous atmospheric add-ons that link vaguely New Order-ish moments "Pilot" and "One With The Freaks" to the title track's ambient electronic pulses and breathy saxophones. Yet nothing is more magical or odd than "Trashing Days", where they manage to make pneumatic space age sound effects rubbing against scraping beats, woozy horns and a quietly plucked banjo, sound like the most natural thing in the world. --Dan Gennoe
Review by Dean Carlson
Neon Golden was a subtle rewiring of the Notwist's long-established baroque hip-hop post-rock fetishist technique. The album's minimal kitchen-sink vibe was stronger, the wide assortment of instruments were arranged with new conviction, and the band would throw in a startlingly unpretentious mixture of tub-thumbing static, cellos, banjos, organs, and breakbeats while Markus Acher's Belle & Sebastian-styled vocals flowed underneath like island run-off. In "This Room," "Pick Up the Phone," "Off the Rails," and the excellent "Consequence," the intricacy of the band's sound remained, but with less experimental desperation and considerably better ideas.
I've been considering ways to dole out an introduction to this review for nearly two weeks, each attempt more futile than the last. I considered keeping a diary of listening (and actually went so far as to do it on a number of occasions), piecing together thoughts and hoping something cohesive would come of it. Re-reading my scribbles, I realized that it was like fitting the jumbled pieces of a puzzle together. Every entry referenced something wholly other than what had preceded it. Inevitably, part of it became personal; so I nixed it. Still, the task became a vital part of this, almost as if I had lived inside the sounds of Neon Golden, drifting in and out of song, mixing familiar with unknown, moving above and beneath the textures and never completely keeping time. In the end, it's apt that this resulted from a Notwist record. The last decade for them was full of shifting movements.
Beginning in Weilheim, Germany in the early 90s as a heavy metal outfit, Markus and Micha Acher, along with drummer Martin Messerschmid, released two albums filled with pounding drums and guitar solos (The Notwist and Nook) before almost abandoning it completely. However, with Nook, things had already started to change. Interests moved away from thudding power riffs and toward the direction of complex rhythms and structures. Even so, to listen to those albums now, most people would find it difficult to believe the same band made this new disc.
In the mid-90s, the Notwist finally got an American distributor with 12, on the now-defunct Zero Hour label. With that, they began to explore even more textures in their sound, enlisting Martin Gretschmann (aka Console) to help with production and add his special electronic touch. Resulting in a more poppy sound for the group (some might even call it indie rock), 12's beauty is startling from beginning to end.
With Martin Console now in tow as a full-time member, Shrink was a huge step into the world of electronic music and sounded almost completely unlike anything else made at the time. Mixing rock and pop with free jazz, old-timey folk, jagged minimalist beats and just about anything else you could toss in, I don't have any problems saying now that the record was ahead of its time. To top it off, the shame in it all is that very few took notice; Zero Hour went belly up (rendering 12 and Shrink virtually impossible to find in record shops these days), and the Notwist went back to Germany and sort of disappeared for a few years.
So it seemed. Console never really slowed down, releasing a ton of solo projects (one of which was 1999's Matador-released Rocket in the Pocket), remixing just about everyone, and doing the programming and production on possibly the best track from Björk's Vespertine, "Heirloom." The list of Notwist side projects became quite lengthy, too: Tied and Tickled Trio (sax player Johannes Enders' continuing project), Village of Savoonga, Potawatomi and Lali Puna, to name a few. So, after four years of what only seemed like hiding, the Acher brothers and the Martins (Console and Messerschmid) return with Neon Golden. Their website says it was worth the wait. And, well, it's true.
Neon Golden is replete with textured sounds, drifting (and occasionally driving) pulsations, and mesmerizing hypno-rhythms. It's been quite a while since the last time I actually felt I've been with a record like this. Sounds odd, but that's exactly the feeling I've received over the last two weeks. And when you've got that much time to spend with a record, it becomes an entity in and of itself. Most times with a record review, you get a few precursory listens and then by number five or six, you're spitting out a review. Not so here. With well over fifty listens to this disc, it's like a relationship has begun to spring forth out of the ether. I guess you could say Neon Golden and me have become well acquainted and it's already akin to hanging with an old friend. Given that amount of time, realizations occur. One of my first was that, in many ways, this record is about textures: electronic bleats, pulsing waves, the mixture of organic instruments with digital blips and loops, and most notably the serenity of Markus Acher's voice.
While Acher's singing has always been appealing to me, it wasn't until this album that I finally recognized something and, for you lyric analysts, it's probably not a good thing. I've found myself spending more time listening to Acher's voice than paying attention to what exactly he's singing about. In some ways, it's similar to Arto Lindsay. On albums like Mundo Civilizado-- when he's singing in Portuguese, it's unclear exactly what he's talking about. Yet his ability to mesmerize and captivate the listener with his singing can be simply haunting, and damn if his voice just doesn't ooze sex appeal. A very similar thing often occurs when I'm listening to Acher. The songs are sung in English. I know the words and I can sing along. Thing is, my attention becomes devoted to the way his phrases are formed, his ability to roll words off his tongue, the manner in which certain syllables, consonants and vowels are stressed, and the way familiar English words all at once become foreign. On "This Room," there's a moment at around the 1:30 mark where the driving percussion suddenly comes to a delirious halt and leaving only Acher's voice imbedded in a wave of electronic gurgles and throbbing beats. The track is rendered into two halves here, Acher's voice cut-up and pieced back together in a dizzying loop, bouncing off itself in nonsense half-syllables and creating a split-second feel of nausea-inducing vertigo.
Elsewhere, a track like "One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You'll Understand" is comprised of plucked strings atop a low saxophone moan while hisses and crackles burble just below the surface, waiting for the end of the song, and fading out with the hum of nothing but fuzz, as if the stylus was just caught in a locked groove. Prior to that fading hum, thin layers of sound begin to unfurl themselves, something that transpires on almost every track-- whether it be the distinguishing Notwist banjo, clanking percussion or the layer upon layer of electronics. Even on Neon Golden's most driving track, "Pilot," the band allows space for those resonating electronic hums to break through.
And then, another realization. The Notwist have an uncanny knack for allowing their compositions room to breathe, creating lush sonic textures. Dynamic numbers like "Pilot" or "Pick Up the Phone" come off as thoughtful and unhurried, songs transitioning into each other with languid movements. "Pick Up the Phone" is awash in spastic, pointy-headed beats and it sounds like the feel of crumpled and un-crumpled candy wrappers. With Markus Acher singing in what sometimes sound like barely hushed whispers, Neon Golden begins to take on an introspective beauty, almost as if everything (the musicians, the singer, the music) is lost in contemplative thought.
Nowhere is this pensiveness more present than in tracks like "Neon Golden" or "Off the Rails." The muted, tranquil beauty of an acoustic guitar and Markus Acher crooning "this is all I know" gently over electronic washes of sound in the latter make for lullaby material. "Neon Golden," on the other hand, begins as a gritty dirge, containing a deep saxophone groan, plucked acoustic guitar and banjo, and the mantra-like title chant. As it progresses, though, the song begins to be taken over by drops of scattered percussion, rhythmic drums, congas, and the murmuring buzz of Console's electronic manipulations. At first, my feelings for "Consequence" were ambivalent, but now I see that it's the perfect choice for a closing song. Markus Acher's lovely, plaintive moan of "Leave me hypnotized, love/ Leave me paralyzed, love," is the one time when the lyrics stand against the backdrop of the song, stark and revelatory. Neon Golden can do exactly what he's singing: it leaves you mesmerized, lost in meditative thought and captivated by the grainy, exquisite textures.
Neon Golden would be a staggering feat for any band, much less a band most people had long since forgotten about (or maybe never really knew). A decade into their career, the Notwist have created a masterpiece by pulling the same trick they pulled on Shrink: mixing things that might not seem to fit together into a beautiful, seamless whole. Again, the unfortunate thing is that anyone outside Europe is going to have a difficult time getting their hands on a copy. If you do find one, be prepared to pay, as City Slang stuff just ain't that cheap in the USA. So, why haven't labels like Mute or Communion or Darla jumped on getting this available for domestic distribution yet? A more obvious choice would even be Matador, who recently released one of Console's albums domestically. As of right now, the Notwist have released the record of the year. It's a shame that most people might not have a chance to hear it.
— Luke Buckman, February 6, 2002