Woody Allen was talking about the Bad Boy of Beyreuth, but he could just as well have been referring to contemporary German techno when he quipped, “I can’t listen to that much…I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.”
Let’s face it: If Allen considers Wagner’s music militaristic, he ought to check out what Germany’s technokinder have been churning out more recently. Forget conquering Poland—we’re talking global thermonuclear war. There’s no denying the brute pneumatic power of stuff like Atari Teenage Riot, EC80R, or just about anything on Achim Szepanski’s Force Inc.—bet it sounds super with a popper shoved up each nostril—but there’s no missing its martial character, either. Some people, it seems, were never informed that the goose step is not a dance.
But there’s a fundamental dichotomy in the German character. These are people who see no contradiction in a fitness center that allows smoking, dispenses ice cream, and sells Jagermeister in convenient, Jacuzzi-ready airplane bottles. Musically, that means songs that come in two speeds: blitzkreig and boring. If the dance contingent is too gotterdammerung fast, the new Krautrock, as exemplified by the likes of Kreidler and To Rococo Rot, is as interminable as the siege of Leningrad.
Too fast, too slow—you don’t have to be a Hegelian to figure out that there ought to be something in the middle. Well, I’ve finally found it: the long-sought synthesis, the perfect piece of Tanzrock. From the moment I heard “All of the Ants Left Paris” off Tarwater’s 2000 LP, Animals, Suns & Atoms, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. A giddy pastiche of John Cale and Kraftwerk, it won me over on first listen with its surreal lyrics, intoned by drummer/vocalist/programmer/To Rococo Rot member Ronald Lippok, and mock-epic grandeur. The other songs on Animals, Suns & Atoms are excellent, as well: cerebral, mechanical, utterly unemotional yet gloriously listenable. Catchy, even.
The Berlin-based duo’s new full-length, Dwellers on the Threshold, is more of the same: pop with a fine-arts degree. Lippok and his longtime collaborator Bernd Jestram—who plays guitar and bass in addition to programming all kinds of electronic doodads—have inescapable avant-garde leanings: Dwellers opens with a collaboration with Norway’s very own Laurie Anderson, Tone Avenstroup (“70 Rupies to Paradise Road”), and ends with a Hart Crane poem set to music (“Imperator Victus”). But unlike the work of America’s own Laurie Anderson, Laurie Anderson, the track never sets off any pretentiousness alarms. This isn’t the kind of culture that’ll have you reaching for your revolver.
What it is, instead, is a funky good time. “70 Rupies to Paradise Road” is international dance-pop at its smartest: bouncy, hip, and well worth every rupee. There’s nothing to it, really: Set against a smooth-as-Ladytron backdrop of synthesized clicks and beeps, Avenstroup runs through languages the way Billy Bob Thornton does wives, while Jestram repeats a guitar riff that’s Goa, Goa, gone, baby.
The track isn’t Dwellers’ only plunge into world music—check out the conga-driven “Phin” or the Afrobeatish “1985”—but unlike, say, Paul Simon, the guys in Tarwater have too short an attention span to take up permanent residence anywhere. Besides, they seem more or less content being Europeans. “Be Late,” a moody but far from soporific foray into Tubular Bells country, comes complete with some rejuvenating old-school synthesizer fills that sound as if they came straight off a long-lost Alan Parsons Project album.
On the faster side, the trance-inducing “Dogs and Light Tents” sets a classical-guitar line against the expected wall of blips, bleeps, and loops, with guest drummer Nicholas Addo-Nettey providing the percussive hammer and nails needed to keep the whole thing standing. “Now,” on the other hand, combines slurred vocal samples, programmed drums, and even harmonica to create a swaying dance track that’s a little bit Portishead and a little bit early Pink Floyd.
Except for the one word of its title, which gets digitally manipulated a million ways to Sunday, “Now” is pretty much vocal-free. As great as the track is, that’s too bad, because what really distinguishes Tarwater from the electronic pack is Lippok’s voice. I say voice, but it’d be more proper to describe it as some kind of heretofore-undreamed-of narrative-delivery system. Less a singer than a talker, Lippok manages to cloak even the most trivial phrases with magical portent. I don’t know what “1985” is about—some kind of mysterious mass migration, perhaps—but when Lippok repeats the chorus (“Earth/Moon/1985”), shivers, I swear to a nonexistent God, run up and down my spine.
Equally haunting is “Metal Flakes.” Anchored by looped strings and twitching with Tourettic percussion, its hypnotic powers are trebled by Lippok’s casual yet urgent phrasing, which turns the nonsensical phrase “Metal flakes/What does the letter say?” into a matter of life and death. Similarly, the up-tempo “Tesla” relies less on its subaquatic electronic effects for success than on Lippok’s sci-fi-flick elocution and opaque lyrics: “White light/Gray tips/Nothing’s different/It was a female/She would come flying/To me/She understood/She nursed me back to health/It’s not easy being a god.”
My favorite song on Dwellers, though, is “Imperator Victus.” I like Crane’s writing well enough, but if anybody had told me I’d ever be playing one of his poems set to music over and over again, I’d have told him to take a flying leap. But it works because (1) the juxtaposition of Crane’s words and Lippok’s accent is wondrous strange, and (2) the melody is so lovely in a sultry Angelo Badalamenti kind of way that Lippok could probably have recited something by Norman Podhoretz and gotten away with it.
It also works because, like almost all of Dwellers on the Threshold, it’s cool, it’s sexy, and it won’t give you the urge to invade anything—except maybe your lover’s pants. And we all know, more than anything, that that’s the only kind of invasion the world needs now. CP