13 August 2010

New Concept

Many thanks to Marcel, who gave me the opportunity to open actual CDs and not cold downloads – how I love to open CDs and read through booklets lying back on my coach!

What I find most interesting about electro/synthpop is that when most think of its origin, they think of the United Kingdom right away. Rarely do we hear the names Gershon Kingsley, Kraftwerk, or Karlheinz Stockhausen – all hailing from Deutschland (Germany). Actually, Deutschland never gets the credit it really deserves as it is the dominant nation of Europe and one of the dominant in the world: top 5 GDP (the largest in Europe), the strength behind the Euro (on the rise again), has one of the largest immigrant work forces (people do not emigrate to other nations unless there is hope for economic mobility), one of the world’s three largest exporters of goods (especially in terms of car – drivers wanted!), and one of the most prolific producers of music. I think Brits and Americans need to take a step back a moment and really take note how the Germans have contributed to, defined, redefined, and mastered electronic music in general, electropop specifically. Whereas in the UK and USA the electro-revolution in music, seen most clearly in the rise of new wave, was an extension of the post-punk movement – musicians keeping a punk ideology alive of questioning the status quo, expectations, and the aesthetics of genre started to experiment with electronic elements, some forsaking analogue instruments altogether. In Deutschland, however, there may have been a punk movement and post-punk as well, electronic music (as in France and Scandinavia as well) developed independently from these. The rise of electronic music was an art form of its own that has been ripped off and emulated by the Brits and American in many ways. And to give you an idea of the range of German electronic bands – from electropop to EBM – here are a few bands worth looking into: Accessory, Armageddon Dildos, Camouflage, CCCP, De/Vision, Eruption (a forefather band, active in the early 1970s), Funker Vogt, Jesus on Extasy, KMFDM (which loosely means “no pity for the majority,” not Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode), Paranoid, PISCIDE, Planetakis, Polarkreis 18, TOY, Trio, Weltklang, Wolfsheim, X-Perience, Yendri, and Zhi-Vago.

This post, however, is all about New Concept.

I have been fortunate when it comes to German music; my nephew, who lives here in the States with me, was raised in Deutschland and keeps me in touch with what is happening over there (now if I can get him to write about all these bands!). But that is not how I discovered New Concept; a few weeks ago I received a friend request on MySpace from the band, accepted, and listened to the music. I was blown away by the sophistication of the music. I needed to hear more, know more, so it was only a question of time before I reached out to the band (blatantly asked them to send me their discography) and spent a few days listening, very loudly, to their music exclusively…. I think my neighbor is singing along to some of the songs already.

One of the marks of great songwriting is when genre becomes irrelevant. Where any given song can be reformatted into any genre and exists beyond the static version written and recorded on an album; when the song has a personality, attitude, and life of its own, outside of the band, album, or genre. This applies to New Concept. Though they are essentially an electropop band, their music is more universal than just that. Each song only shares sophistication and savvy in common; individually, they all have a life of their own, though they come together beautifully as albums. In this post iPod world, we are quickly forgetting the concept of albums, unified by themes or sonic motifs or production styles. (My friends will tell you that I load full albums into my iPod and make them endure each and every track!) Whether it is New Concept’s “Wheel of Love,” “The Outer Gates,” or “Stomp,” each is a complete collection in and of itself, composed of individual songs that can easily stand-alone.

English is one of the two largest language markets for music in the Western world (Spanish being the other); New Concept has opted to sing in English, though I would love to hear a few German tracks personally. But unlike most of the electropop written in the English-speaking market, many of the hackneyed clichés are thankfully missing from New Concept. They may have heard their 80s and even their 90s, but they do not allow this to be the determining factor of how their music is going to run. Sometimes employing an ostinato (that repetitive sound in the background) and sometimes not, sometimes faux-drum and bass sounds and sometimes not, sometimes completely electronic and sometimes not, the different combinations allow for a more varied experience and a great range of depth to their music. English is definitely their second language, but it does not hinder the depth of their lyrics in the least. Sometimes when listening to foreign bands singing in English, you can’t hope but think to yourself, “What the hell do they mean?” or “Couldn’t they find a better rhyme for that?” But you never get that with New Concept. Their lyrics are as fluidic as their music.

For those of you into electro/synthpop music, New Concept will offer up a new alternative to the new wave of Anglo-dominated electro-revival. And for those of you starting to explore Deutschland’s incredible musical traditions and scenes, New Concept is one of the most inviting points of entry. Below are brief reviews of each of their major releases, and you can definitely head over to iTunes to download away.

“Wheel of Love” (2000)

The album opens with a short, ambient instrumental, bordering on a trip hop feel to the beat, but quickly gives way to “Innocence.” The textures of the sounds between the rhythm and melodies couldn’t be more different. The heartfelt admission, “I’m crying tears of innocence, I’ve never cried these tears…” is ambiguous, because we never learn what caused those tears, only that “you flee it’s reality.” But it is that kind of ambiguity that leads a listener to connect the song to his/her own experiences, not having one spelled out for him/her. “Try!” is more aggressive, really harkening back to a new wave feel, where “Why Don’t You Believe Me” (“Is it right? Is it wrong? I’ve waited so long, endless nights…”) is the perfect piece of contemporary synthpop.

“Harbour of Storm” has two appearances on the album. The album version is visceral, where the High Energy Mix definitely captures German dance trends of its time. “Daydream,” my favorite song on the album, is one of the two darkest songs on the album, with a definite hint of darkwave – “Never trust another daydream. Never trust what you saw. Conceal the pain.” This kind of song is a lost art form in music: the ability to write an upbeat pop song that is dark and sinister at the same time, but with no undertow. The other dark track, “But You’ll Never Sleep Tonight,” closes out the album (other than the extra remix of “Harbour of Storm.”) Let me commit blasphemy now! This is the kind of song that old Depeche Mode fans pray that DM would produce nowadays. Electropop that does not harken to the past, intricate rhythm section, and introspective lyrics (“… but you’ll never sleep tonight, no chance to say good bye, I’ll take you through this darkest life and you moan… and you moan alone, greed demands its own…”), the song is mysterious, open-ended, and sonically inviting.

Track Listing:
1. Brainstorm
2. Innocence
3. Try!
4. Why Don’t You Believe Me
5. Never Never
6. Greatest Lifetime
7. Harbour of Storm
8. Daydream
9. Losing
10. Daydream
11. Living
12. But You’ll Never Sleep Tonight
13. Harbour of Storm, High Energy Mix

“The Outer Gates” (2004)

They open their sophomore album distinctly from their debut; “U Stop Me” is a near-dance ready pop song, employing vocal effects, whose upbeat pace belies the fact of the lyrics of the falsetto: “Another point, another town, another joy to break a heart for a while.” Also on the album is “…Met You At 46,” a full length, mid-paced instrumental with impressionable string arrangements, sometimes bordering on dark; the song has some arabesque moments. Again, New Concept produces music that fans of old synthpop would be happy with: “Waiting” and “Wonderful Star.” No, they do not sound like 80s at all, but they are the logical progression of what synthpop should sound like today. They do not harken back two decades to reproduce an old sound, but rather rely on modern sound effects for their ostinato. “Waiting” relies on a slue of electronic sounds/effects and guitar, while “Wonderful Star” employs big, ambient key arrangements.

Two tracks exist in two different versions. The first is “Sky.” The album version, with its piano and ambient keys, borders on darkwave, while the rough version is more synth/industrial rock than anything else – demonstrating that the band has more range than previously demonstrated. The second track is “Station Man.” The album version is brilliant songwriting and production: the song sounds much more complex than it is, a testament to great production. The R’n’voice Remix, with female vocals, is much more downtempo and loungey. Again, demonstrating a new range in music than previously demonstrated, you are left to wonder just how much more can this band really change it up.

One of the bonus tracks is “Blue Dress,” a cover of a Depeche Mode track off of “Violator.” First off, I think that it is easier to sound like DM than it is to cover them – one of the reasons why there aren’t many covers of DM, because it is difficult to take their music out of context/genre. However, New Concept owns their cover. Though the vocal arrangements are near identical (though the background vocals are more luscious), the beat is slightly faster, the wall of sound fuller, and has a hopeful feel to it, not the anxiousness that Gore infuses into the song with his voice and Wilder with the texture of the sounds. (And two thumbs up for not covering a single!)

Track Listing:
1. U Stop Me
2. Waiting
3. U2 Night
4. Wild Brain
5. Return
6. Sky
7. Met You at 46
8. Wonderful Star
9. Live and Die
10. Station Man
11. Flash In the Night
12. Love Is Blind
13. Station Man, R’m’Voice Remix
14. Blue Dress (Depeche Mode cover)
15. Sky, Rough Version

Here is a video clip for “”U2 Night” from their YouTube Channel: newconcnewconc.

“Stomp!” (2009)

I listened to the previous material in order of release; I wanted to get my own concept of what they sounded like against their own contemporaries and develop my own expectations of the band maturing. When I heard “Stomp!” I was forced to throw all my expectations out the window. Sure, it is sophisticated and savvy like everything that followed it before, but the sound is bigger! Though technically an EP, “Stomp!” makes more musical references than before, again showing the band’s ability to exist out of the pigeonhole of electropop. With a move in record label, on what is on offer the band states: “It was really important for us this time to keep a musical thread running through the album and to concentrate on our specialities, without foregoing ingenious ideas, instead of offering too much which might not actually be appreciated.” And they succeeded.

The music here is more visceral than their previous releases, with vocal arrangements that are bit more unexpected. Take the titular track, “Stomp!,” its vocal arrangements are closer to Irish jig than anything in electropop, accompanied with a big guitar and aggressive arrangements/sounds. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a real foray into synthrock darkwave, follows. “Drowning” is a modern day electronic post-punk song, while “Slow Motion” is the interplay of a rock guitar arrangement against an instrumental downtempo song. New Concept plays within the piano rock genre for “More Than Gold,” with intricate vocal arrangements (together, the vocalists can span four octaves). Followed by the hodgepodge “When You Come Around,” this is the most interesting track. The song threads together many musical references, from rock to industrial, from pop to post-punk, it is a song that in theory you do not think will work, but it does. The music never allows the lyrical anger or anxiousness to overwhelm it, though the affected guitar sounds hint at it. The EP closes with “One Feeling,” and all I have to say is wow. Piano and strings, with very limited percussion, and an acoustic guitar, this is the least imagined way you thought the collection would end. Another instrumental (I admire musicians who have the “cojones” [balls] to do instrumental music, and not just as rare b-sides), this may be the shortest track on the collection, but it is viscerally as powerful as all the rest. The lead string arrangement is gut-wrenching and haunting.

Track Listing:
1. Stomp!
2. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
3. Drowning
4. Slow Motion
5. More Than Gold
6. When You Come Around
7. One Feeling

Here is their video for “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” from their YouTube Channel: newconcnewconc.

Keep up with New Concept at their homepage and MySpace.

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