Monday, December 13, 2010

Music Monday: The Notwist

I totally had a full post written already about The Notwist. It talked about a lot of things, like the ubiquitous of indietronica as a whole and what I think their place in it, and I kept comparing them to Radiohead and The Postal Service and even The Beta Band and then I hadn't written this part yet but my plan was to note how big of a mark they have made on their scene via 13 & God and by extension all of anticon and also the effect of their numerous side-projects, and then I was going to argue that no other band has been capable of carrying on the German indie lineage started by bands like Can and Kraftwerk, and whatever.

There were some good points in that post but it was boring. I am going to turn it into a list of factoids.
  • The Beta Band were making formless sample-heavy rock music before Radiohead made Kid A
  • The Postal Service is the band responsible for transforming my high school class into indie dorks
  • The Notwist's music is way way more meaningful than that of these
But really who cares? If I can't argue that one of my favorite bands' music is good without comparing it to a bunch of other bands then maybe I shouldn't be writing posts about music. I think that those things above are true, but they are mostly in the realm of opinion. You don't have to agree with me that The Notwist's music is the ultimate indietronica, that is you don't have to agree that they truly synthesize every influence on that subgenre in a more elegant way than their peers or predecessors or anyone, to agree that they can craft really good tunes and make fun tracks and remain listenable in spite of experimentation.

Here's a video:

Instead of jumping into more wankery or technical whatever criticism let me share a memory. I remember discovering the track "Chemicals" on LaunchCast Radio, which eventually got bought by Yahoo and I'm not sure if anyone still uses it. I discovered great band after great band with their similar artist database. Wasn't perfect but was ahead of its time. All I really remember was being completely mesmerized by the vocals. I remember thinking to myself "I wonder what this song is all about?" I am not really a lyrics guy. I get these ... impressions of a song that have little to do with the lyrics. To this day I haven't looked up the lyrics to "Chemicals" but to me it is a song about how everything that really happens is just due to chemicals. Everything bad that ever happens to you, you don't have to worry about it. You can just chalk it up to chemicals and move on with your life. What I mean is that everything you do is really just impulses in your brain and you will always follow certain chemical laws in terms of what you think. This sounds depressing but if you only invoke it in the bad times, then it is liberating.

[This one's video is unofficial:]

I remember making my friend Evan listen to "Chemicals", and the way it starts with just glitchy drums and lo-fi accented vocals all singing about chemicals you know? And he said about ten seconds in "Walker this music is seriously weird". Then about ... ten seconds after than he said "Whoa! This is really good!". I feel like that exemplifies the kind of emotional dynamic that I most often associate with music from The Notwist. There are bands and musicians that are great at contrasting loud and soft or one instrument with another instrument or female with male or sustained with staccato or whatever whatever whatever. The Notwist aren't just contrasting notes, The Notwist contrast emotions. Their music contrasts happy and sad, they contrast chaos and order and they contrast liberty and slavery and control and the lack thereof. They are not just playing notes, they are playing ideas!

[I really wish this video didn't add the train sounds to the original:]

This is one of those things that I feel like is such a monumental achievement that I have no idea how I am the only one who seems to have picked up on it. Why isn't music with this kind of contrast more popular? It isn't a bunch of songs it is art! It's the kind of music I can get behind and say "this is what I like" and people will feel challenged by me.

I think it is not that big of a secret that people are afraid of music that makes them think. I think it is a bigger secret that people are afraid of music that makes them feel.

If I haven't sold you yet, then let me talk about technique. On one hand you can just say what I said earlier: they sound German. Take all of krautrock and modernize it and spin it around in the worldwide indiemobile and see what comes out, that's what they sound like to a certain extent. But that doesn't say anything of quality or restraint, and those are the areas where their technique really shines. They can take any timbre you want and turn it into whatever texture they want. There is something about their skill in crafting sounds into a certain shape that I don't really know of anyone else who comes close.

If I told you it was all about glitch beats and banjo samples you'd laugh at me, so I won't, but it is. I mean there is this level of audacity in there, I think. "We can sample banjo and you'll still like it" kind of audacity. Markus Acher's voice is nothing less than mesmerizing. Listening to their albums becomes like a trance when you take in all the lush details at once.

OK hopefully that is enough to spark your interest and cause you to go do some listening. Let me know if you have trouble acquiring their albums or anything and also let me know if you like them!


  1. This is a really good post. Coincidentally, I've just spent the last month writing papers about visual artists who paint ideas--I think it's a lot more common that most people realize, but because ideas can be so complex most don't know/bother to trace them.

    I liked the first song, but this band's music is a little creepy, yeah?

  2. @heidenkind Well one problem is that they only seem to have 3 real music videos
    available on youtube. I feel like the average reader will just kind of
    not pay attention if there isn't really a video. Maybe that's too
    cynical of me. I should have put in a few of their lighter songs
    inbetween, just audio.

    But you're right, a lot of their music is pretty creepy. But also a
    lot of it isn't, I just picked the wrong songs lol. I think creepy is
    what Evan meant by "weird", describing the a capella + glitch intro to
    "Chemicals". I guess that brings me to something that I didn't really
    mention, and that's that their music is really diverse.

    But on the other hand I know that I kind of tend to like creepy music

  3. Huge fan of Notwist, and because of you 13 and God. I probably need to go check out a few things I have missed over time. Was always hoping a second 13 and God album.

  4. @nick The story is that they've been working on new 13 and God ever
    since the last Notwist album came out, but that's been a while. Not
    sure if that was just a rumor or not.