CD Review

Neon Golden

Last January, the Notwist broke four years of silence with Neon Golden, easily the year’s most coveted indie release, and salivating critics around the world deemed it one of 2002’s best. Hipsters across the U.S. searched frantically for the album in stores, but most came up dry. A year after its release, it is finally available in the U.S.

Undoubtedly, it was worth the long wait. With their fifth full-length album, this German heavy metal-turned-experimental indie band perfect the superb attention to detail and rhythmic awareness they demonstrated on 1998’s Shrink. The new album is a stunning assembly of illusive beats, eerie electronic noises and subtle, meandering melodies. As such, the album sounds like a crossbreed of glitchy, danceable techno, catchy pop-rock and minimalist jazz—all with a sustained art-house aloofness.

The Notwist use odd instruments such as the zarb, cachon and canjira along with the more conventional guitar, keyboards and strings. The result is the strange noises and beguiling whisps of sound that are as alluring as they are unfamiliar.

Markus Acher’s serene voice is at once beautiful and painful, yet his singing bears no sign of the overwrought pretentiousness that often befalls melancholia in less skillful hands. And even though Acher’s vocals lack much dynamic or emotive range, their soothing tone actually makes for the album’s most effective, mesmerizing instrument.

Neon Golden is repetitive. Along with Acher’s unaffected voice, the rhythm programming lends a steady, structured calm to the disc. But despite the songs’ tendency to mesh together, they never get boring. Rather, they cohere into an intriguingly dreamy, otherworldly sensation that pulsates with occasional surges of energy.

“Off the Rails” is the ideal combination of pop and experimental rock. Though its chances for the radio are slim, the song is infectious for anyone who takes the time to listen. Beginning with a simple drum rhythm, the band cleverly adds keyboard, an array of percussion, lulling vocals and charming strings to craft a pensive and stimulating pop tune. Lyrics are few and replete with arresting literal implications. But, as with the nonsensical vocals of Sigur Rós, it’s their sound, more than their actual meaning, that matters most.

“Neon Golden” is understated blues with powerful acoustic guitar and primitive percussion lines that jar wonderfully with Acher’s voice and a small choir of woodwinds. The eeriest and most satisfying moment on the album is when Acher sings “Don’t leave me here for I glow,” pausing on each tension-filled word, in absolute unison with the piano.

Most music can be described as some sort of “moving experience,” but the Notwist go beyond “moving.” Their meticulous frameworks of instruments, electronic sounds and captivating vocals work so well that the music buries itself in the listener’s psyche. Each plaintive echo, new texture and looping rhythm sounds like a natural extension of the brain’s synapses. For all its arty abstractions, Neon Golden reaches the sublime without being pompous or untouchable in the least.

—Sarah L. Solorzano