NEU!’s first album, NEU! – presumably they used all their imagination on the content of their albums, rather than the names – is something of a departure from the kind of Krautrock that is embodied by the inspired improvisation of Can, or the fearsomely bonkers avant garde experimentation of Faust, the other big names in this fascinating genre. In some ways, NEU! are actually the most progressive of all Krautrock groups: their music seems less bound by the conventions of traditional rock music, or even jazz, blues, or the avant garde. Their best music has an amazingly crisp, fresh sound that doesn’t seem so apparent in the work of their peers. It’s fair to say that Cluster or Harmonia’s best work also has the same kind of freshness to it, but there is a real sharpness to NEU!’s minimalist work: like the air on a cold winter’s morning.
There are clear similarities between NEU! and NEU! 2, not least in the opening tracks of each record. ‘Hallogallo’ from the first album is a bright, vibrant start, and ‘Für Immer’ (‘Forever’) on this album, is very nearly as good. It is similarly lengthy, and again built on ‘motorik’ drumming, but with repetitive, strummed guitar overlaid with pretty, repeated figures, as well as washes of cymbal sound and hints of keyboard that add to the song’s hypnotic, spacey air. The sound is very clean – almost icy – and characteristically uncluttered, meaning the song combines elegance with its urgency, before it fades into a wash of distorted drums and the sounds of the sea on a beach. This leads the record into a strange, transitional phase where the tracks ‘Spitzenqualität’ (‘Highest Quality’) and ‘Gedenkminute’ (‘A Minute’s Silence’) seem a little like they are marking time. Although ‘Spitzenqualität’ is interesting in that it mimics the effects of some of the varispeeded songs later on the album in real time – it begins with fast, repetitive drumming and treated guitar, before getting slower and slower until nothing is heard but the sound of whistling wind – it feels a little like filler, as does ‘Gedenkminute’, (a tolling bell and whistling wind).
Where NEU! had a coherent dynamic, its six tracks just about hanging together as a whole, the second album is far more disrupted by the tape and record ‘experiments’ of tracks like ‘Super 16’, ‘Neuschnee 78’ and ‘Super 78’. As both ‘Neuschnee’ (‘New Snow’) and ‘Super’ are great NEU! Tracks, it’s a shame Dinger and Rother didn’t manage to create more material from their apparently limited budget, or just leave the new tracks to stand on their own merits. Something like ‘Lila Engel’ (‘Lilac Angel’) may seem a little out of place with the smoother songs here, as it has heavy, repetitive drumming and industrial sounding slabs of atonal guitar, all of which speed up when a second guitar riff kicks in. It also features another odd and indecipherable vocal performance from Klaus Dinger (not unlike his croaking on ‘Lieber Honig’ from NEU!), and the whole track feels rather off kilter and angular, although it clearly explores similar ideas to the first album’s ‘Negativland’, getting faster and faster until it collapses and fades into feedback and echo effects.
‘Neuschnee’ is such a strong track that even when it is speeded up for ‘Neuschnee 78’, it still sounds okay – although it is horribly butchered on ‘Hallo Excentrico!’ – but in its proper state it almost matches the brilliance of ‘Für Immer’. The drumming is brisk and simple, guitars strum prettily and there are slowly unfurling curlicues of treated guitar, and like most NEU! songs, it is built on repeated structures, progressing and developing through the additions and embellishments made during the course of the song. As with so much of NEU!’s best material, its lightness and dynamism give it a beautiful, almost otherworldly, quality. And although ‘Super’ is much darker, with a threatening, stop-start riff, it’s still a great piece of music. There’s something slightly unhinged about it that only adds to the sense of threat, but, essentially, this is Punk a good three years before it really came into the public consciousness. Clearly NEU! were well named. Interestingly, the threat here is amplified on ‘Super 16’, where the slowing down of an already aggressive sound makes the song throb eerily, almost like some kind of monstrous heartbeat. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Can’s ‘Aumgm’, another song where the boundaries of the musical envelope were thoroughly pushed.
Although this album doesn’t seem like that much of a musical leap forward from their first, that probably doesn’t matter too much as NEU! were so far ahead of virtually everyone else at this stage anyway. This, perhaps, is what keeps their music so vital thirty-odd years on. A lot of the things that NEU! did on their first two albums have been heard many times since, but they’ve never been done better, and as the likes of Thom Yorke and Damon Albarn claim to be NEU! fans, it’s fair to say their influence is still felt today. Perhaps the only pity is that these artists don’t show NEU!’s inspiration more clearly in their own work, because if they did, it would not only make their music a great deal more interesting, but it would also give a truly visionary band the credit they richly deserve.