on 16 January 2006
NEU!’s Michael Rother is conceivably the most important man in Krautrock: not only was he in the original line up of Kraftwerk – alongside fellow NEU!-man Klaus Dinger – but he was also in the great Harmonia (with Hans Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, or, collectively, Cluster), and worked with Can’s brilliant drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, on his early solo albums. If not the most important man, he certainly seems to be the one keenest on working with his fellow musical visionaries.
While Can were busy exploring the outer reaches of the musical galaxy and Faust were tearing up (then – more than likely – jumping up and down on, attacking with an angle grinder, and finally setting fire to) the musical rulebook, NEU! were setting out on a slightly different, if equally esoteric and single-minded path. While their music has a feeling of being more grounded in reality than that of these contemporaries, it has a similarly questioning and radical approach to the form of the song. It is more minimalist than either Can’s or Faust’s work, but while this may be down to purely practical considerations – there were only two people in this band after all – it is no less worthy of interrogation. Like much Krautrock, the music here is almost impossible to pigeonhole, so it’s easy to see why that term has stuck to the acts it has: Faust, Can, NEU!; all are virtually uncategorisable.
NEU!’s music can sound like a precursor to punk, or like early ambient, or, most of all, it can sound unlike anyone or anything else. This is certainly true of the album’s first, and best, track, ‘Hallogallo’. It’s also true of other strong songs here, such as ‘Weissensee’ or ‘Lieber Honig’. The album as a whole has a slightly stark, white, feel to it, and this is particularly true of a track like ‘Sonderangebot’ (‘Special Offer’), where there is a very chilly, spacious, feel. The music here sounds like a collection of odd groaning, crashing metallic noises, accompanied by wind moving across wires or strings. It’s the kind of thing that could be seen as nascent ambient music, and although it lacks the hypnotic beauty of some of the other tunes here, it’s interesting because it plays with the idea of what constitutes music by breaking conventional structures down into something more like sound effects and then building the track out of these.
The groaning of ‘Sonderangebot’ gives way to ‘Weissensee’ (‘White Lake’), which is built from gently lapping guitar, crashing cymbals, and precise, subtle drumming. Treated guitar creates the effect of waves moving, and what sounds like a detuned slide guitar seems to make them swell and rise, before they ebb away again. Like the two other tracks on the first half of the album, there is an undeniable sense of movement, but here it is oddly beautiful and a little unsettling. ‘Im Glück’ (‘In Luck’) continues the musical theme of ‘Weissensee’, but the music is more static, and again, ambient. It still has a chilly beauty, but it’s more abstract and harder to define. The seagull effect on the track continues the feeling that this album is about space, movement, water; and this is reinforced by the sound of paddles moving through water that can be heard at the end of the song. The title of the next track, ‘Negativland’, is self-explanatory, and the harsh industrial noise followed by distorted voices and cheering, clapping and shouting at what sounds like a rally, suggest that this is a song about a certain perception of Germany – whether that is one held by Rother and Dinger, or whether it is one they feel other nations might hold isn’t clear, but it’s a potent point. The shrieking guitar that envelops the not-quite-loping-not-quite-plodding bass line and drums throughout the song and its various tempo changes, provides it with a hard, prickly shell, and helps make this a direct predecessor of the kind of post Punk hardcore that would rise to prominence in America in the early ‘80s.
The closing ‘Lieber Honig’ (‘Dear Honey’) is very different; as the only vocal track on the album, it stands apart from the other work here, and although the almost neo-natal voice (Dinger’s) that croaks the lyrics could so easily be a contrivance, the sparse backing of plucked guitar and washes of synth make the song strikingly naïve, musically, as well as vocally. But the track that is really at the core of the album is the opener, ‘Hallogallo’, a song built on the foundations of Dinger’s so-called ‘Motorik’ drumming and Rother’s repetitive guitar figures. Dinger’s drumming is so crisp and accurate that he is clearly consciously trying to play in a metronomic, machine-like way. What this gives the song is a startling clarity and freshness – almost a purity. What variation there is in the music comes from slowly unfurling waves of wah-wah guitar and what sounds like controlled feedback. But even with these extra layers of sound, the music remains remarkably uncluttered and has a strange, breathtaking beauty. Although it weighs in at over ten minutes, the song is nowhere near outstaying its welcome, seeming to float – almost hypnotically – on its own energy. This song is genius in is purest form.
Although released in 1972, much of this album sounds fresher today than the majority of contemporary music. The best things here are utterly timeless and show how exciting and vital truly daring composition can be. The influence of this album stretches from the Punk and New Wave rush of the late 1970s, to later ambient and dance music, and, like much Krautrock, Dinger and Rother’s music seems to have permeated the more mainstream acts that followed them almost by stealth. It’s as if the acts that followed were influenced without even being consciously aware of it. But what this album has – and its successors lack – is an abundance of light, air, and space in which the music can breathe. And that, as much as anything, is what sets it apart.