Ulrich Schnauss

    A Strangely Isolated Place


    Forget the bevy of punk-influenced dance groups, of old skool hip-hop jams, of cultish pop orchestras, of apothecary-prescribed mood inhibitors that got this summer started on the right note for you and your party crew. The real joint does not rely on fickle ass-shaking or ephemeral chemical enhancement as a false promise of booty-to-come. The real joint plunges into none of the hurried aftereffects and reactions that many a fad succumbs to. The real joint has to avail itself from any specific time and place on its approach to the realm of transcendent summer music. Summer music occupies a unique place, because of its therapeutic nature. It has the ability to transport listeners from their own dull existences to fond remembrances of erstwhile careless days.


    Fittingly, the only album so far this year that captures the real feeling of summer glee and optimism was released by a German — surely they must have nice summers (!), but no one expected this from the nation that birthed Bauhaus and Richard Wagner — and originally issued by City Centre Offices, a tiny imprint out of Berlin and Manchester, back in May of 2003. Domino picked up this inspiring collection of songs for U.S. distribution after the ensuing storm of praise it received from purveyors of the little-known. Since then, Schnauss’s exquisitely crafted tunes have only gained steam, picking up admirers and denoting their timelessness upon critical reflection.

    Eschewing much of the frequent dissonance and abrasive stuttering of contemporary electronics, Schnauss heavily layers gorgeous textures, approaching the songwriting modus operandi of admitted shoegaze-rock heroes Kevin Shields and Neil Halstead and applying it to an electronic template. Forgoing a slew of bizarre head-spinning sounds, he relies on fairly standard instrumentation — or, at least, digital approximations of it. Back-masked guitar, smooth keys, chugging bass are augmented by symphonic strings and layers upon layers of pleasing electronic tones.

    The key word here is approachable: this would elicit a favorable reaction from anyone finding, say, Squarepusher’s Big Loada unpalatable. Many of the beats will ensure frequent references to Boards of Canada, but so will anything lush and fuzzy that employs a midtempo hip-hop groove or solemn breakbeats. But the real cue Schnauss draws on derives from his own countrymen. The Teutonic shift comes from the driving repetitive percussion of Neu!: simple pulsing beats play away like a cherished mantra or a hushed invocation. It makes you feel like you are jogging endlessly toward a slightly perceptible light, not quite making any noticeable progress, but stunned in a blissful reverie all the while.

    The songs themselves all follow a simple rationale. Schnauss takes his sweet time developing things, building from a warm and warbling synth progression or a hushed orchestral key into a full-fledged dynamic orchestra. His erudite touch incorporates myriad chirping harmonics that rise to climax and fizzle down slowly, impressing the senses with a majestic and hopeful hue. With each track hovering around the seven-minute mark, Schnauss presents a vision that is epic and cinematic in scope but that never belies the simple intimacy of personal headphone contemplation.

    For my money, “Bluementhal” comes the closest to achieving perfection. Opening with what in any other context might sound like some god-awful new-age chimes and string section, it masterfully builds with sleigh bells and electro-ish bass. When the acoustic guitar cuts in, it plays like a beautiful long-lost instrumental from the Cure circa Disintegration.

    If you subscribe to the doctrine, there is much pleasing warmth inside. Schnauss’s best moments brandish an epiphanous flair, a feeling akin to Platonic revelation, escaping the limiting and familiar confines of the cave. Not to say that Schnauss is miles away from his inspirations, the oft-invoked Technicolor bright melodies and nymph-like vocal samples of aforementioned Boards of Canada have been a beckoning call to many. Still, others will point out similarities with the synth-shoegaze of m83, or even the crystalline preciousness of early Mum.

    Many bedroom laptoppers evoke shadowy underplay or even paranoia, but Schanuss’s mood remains sunny and forgiving through and through. You haven’t heard an electronic album this dazzling and sun-drenched since Manitoba’s stunning Up in Flames of last year. Even if I’ve pigeonholed it as “summer music,” Schnauss reaches far beyond that — his relentless spiraling beats push even the all-night driver toward eventual illumination. Though the optimism conveyed is not for everyone, many a cloudy naysayer has been known to fall for pastures this green having finally laid eyes upon them.