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The Notwist’s Droning, Clattering ‘Close to the Glass’ Zones Out on the Autobahn

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Label: Sub Pop

Bavaria art-rockers the Notwist used to sound too metal for indie people and not metal enough for metal people — both of whom were mostly oblivious to the band at the time, though check the intricate distorto-chug thrashing on 1992’s Nook and 1995’s 12 if you’re skeptical. Those are still their most exciting albums. But in 1996, Martin Gretschmann joined, and as you’d expect from a “programmer” who moonlights as the electroclash-y Console — not to mention from Germans whose mission demands carrying on the proud Teutonic tradition of studio gadgetry — everything changed.

As the band tells it, their Talk Talk side took over from their Dinosaur Jr. side (which understates their Voivod side, Can side, and covering new wave-era Robert Palmer side, but still.) Shrink (1998) calmed things down somewhat and opened up spaces previously closed, and by their next album, Neon Golden, spaces were pretty much all that was left. The Notwist’s most subdued set — almost Radiohead crossed with Pavement in spots — it also maybe inevitably wound up the one where U.S. tastemakers briefly got behind the band: no. 7 in Pitchfork’s 2002 year-end; no. 33 in Pazz & Jop upon its 2003 U.S. release.

Discounting an obscure film soundtrack, they’ve only made two albums since. And by now, as anybody who’s heard the new Alcest album or Sunn O))) / Ulver collaboration can attest, plenty of bona fide metal is even more ambient than the Notwist ever were. But Close to the Glass still stacks up the chemistry experiments: blipping, blooping, swirling, squeaking, scritching, glitching, twinkling, fading into gauze.

Clatter arises from songs and songs from clatter, and it’s maddening how so many of them seem to randomly end before committing to actual endings. “The Fifth Quarter of the Globe” (do the math, fraction fans) is 50 seconds of fragile, medieval Christmas goth, and “Lineri” nine minutes of low-key machine mope that repeats notes a lot. “From One Wrong Place to the Next” is some reassuringly warm kind of Augustus Pablo dub dreamscape, plus a human-beatbox break; “Into Another Tune” starts with comely chamber music from the Penguin Café, slathers amorphous vocal muffle on top, then just sort of tuckers out.

That said, not everything here is quite so vague. When Markus Acher lets himself enunciate, he’s clearer and more affecting than ever — in a few places, he even croons like he wants to be a Pet Shop Boy. Seriously: If you’ve ever yearned to hear Neil Tennant fronting late-period Sonic Youth, “7-Hour Drive” is the song for you, not to mention fun fun fun auf der Autobahn, if its title is to be believed. “Run Run Run,” meanwhile, allegedly a blues attempt, manages to work up a decent head of drone, shattering glass into its percussion track while escaping around corners and alleys in a manner worthy of a title the Supremes and Velvet Underground and Jo Jo Gunne got to first.

“Casino” is no match for Kacey Musgraves’ “Blowin’ Smoke” where gambling addiction is concerned, but still makes you bummed that somebody couldn’t find a room for two in Vegas; the indie-power-strum-unto-barrage of “Kong” finds the Notwist blatantly reclaiming their Dinosaur Jr. side. And closer “They Follow Me” is where Acher brothers Markus and Micha subliminally channel the lederhosened recorder folk that first got them playing music — it sounds a bit like Munich Neue Deutsche Welle oompahtronic Oktoberfesters and David Lowery comrades FSK, who’ve been recording in the Notwist’s sweet home Weilheim in recent years. Hey, Nth-generation Kraut rockers have roots too, you know.