Rick McGrath

Bohren Decides To Rough It Up By Reducing It Down.

Bohren & der Club of Gore

Wonder Records 2005
58 minutes

Der Club:
Thorston Benning: schlagzeug, percussion
Christoph Clöser: Fender Rhodes, vibes, sax
Morten Gass: 8-string bass, volumen pedal
Robin Rodenberg: standup bass, fretless bass

All songs composed by Christoph Clöser and Morton Gass
Arranged & Produced by Bohren at Dark Victory Studio
Choir arranged by Wolfram Burgdorf

For more info on Bohren's beginnings, please click over to:
Bohren und der Club of Gore: Drilling For Doom. And Finding It.

Not Your Average Ghost Story: Not Much Happens.

OK, what is your response to this: you dim the lights, get comfy, strap on some headphones and turn on the cd. After a slow, sinewy keyboard introduction of something that sounds both sneaky & timid, you are drawn into a labrynth of seemingly interminable minor chords, played creepy horror style, but at a tempo almost too slow to perceive a melody. There is no beat. No backbeat. The rhythm section simply layers over the electric piano in single hit chordal bursts that explode, then relax in the beauty of slow vibratory decay before the next chord bursts and crumbles, like a row of falling gravestones, or the clutching, bony hand of a ghost grasping slowly for something fleeting, and failing...

Welcome to Geisterfaust, the newest offering from the Cologne-based, avante-garde German jazz quartet, Bohren & der Club of Gore. Geisterfaust translates into English as Spirit Fist or Ghost Fist, and is a difficult work to readily conceptualize insofar as, well, aside from the slow, meandering structure which defines four of its five pieces, not much really happens during a seemingly-timeless 58 minutes of studied melancholic, slow marching minimalism. Where once was the full body of composition -- melody, tempo, key, beat -- is now a mere skeleton, reduced even further to a mere ghost of itself. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. For Bohren, Geisterfaust must be the ultimate in environmusicalism taken to absurdist limits.

The Fist Of A Different Spirit.

Perhaps it's best to reopen this crypt with a look at what Geisterfaust is not. It's not Sunset Mission (2000), with its slow, swooping melancholic melodies, haunting sax lines, and clever darkside song titles like: Prowler, On Demon Wings, Midnight Walker, Street Tattoo, Painless Steel, Darkstalker, Nightwolf, Black City Skyline, Dead End Angels... and it's not Black Earth (2002), with its wide-ranging flavours and anxious, spacey feel... along with more hallowe'en songtitles: Midnight Black Earth, Crimson Ways, Maximum Black, Vigilante Crusade, Destroying Angels, Grave Wisdom, Constant Fear, Skeletal Remains, and the always-popular The Art Of Coffins. This ain't Mary Poppins, kids. But they are sort of funny in their overblown seriousness, and oddly enough, the music doesn't seem to be in any way representative of the titles. Both SM and BE explored their themes in what Bohren bassist/co-composer Morton Gass generally defines as "doom-ridden jazz music" -- a style of composition defined by its melancholic beauty, its solitary logic, and its overwhelming admiration for playing at a very slow tempo. Bohren co-composer, sax player & keyboard man Christoph Clöser is more explicit. He calls Sunset Mission "pleasant" and Black Earth, "eventful". In any case, the two cds feature smooth, sonorous, doom-ridden keyboard & sax jazz that sounds, more often than not, like the soundtracks of the great black & white film noir classics. Sexy and dangerous. Nostalgic.

So, SM and BE were black, but fun... what do we have here? Geisterfaust is a very, very different kind of doom-ridden jazz than Bohren's efforts on the prior two cds, altho Clöser is quick to point out all three cds form a certain progression: "it's hard to explain, because for me the shift from our past music to Geisterfaust is not that big. It's one possible development from Black Earth, and for us there were no reason to make a new Black Earth, because what we wanted to get with Black Earth we got. Why should we copy ourselves?"

There's no reason at all to copy yourself at all, Christoph, but you and fellow composer Gass may have gone a tad overboard in your shift -- not as an artistic composition (one suspects one will never hear anything quite like Geisterfaust ever again), but in your willingness to cast off fans who might not be willing to understand and/or appreciate the beautiful brutality of this, your ultimate musican pun... where "bohren" (german for "the act of drilling a hole") finally becomes "boring" (english for "monotonous") -- and that's the point of the exercise!

Could a group go into a studio with the preconceived notion of making something boring? Hey, stranger things have happened. It is like an inverted science fiction story... can you imagine a world in which musicians struggle to create works of tedious art? Think about it: exciting music is easy, bad music is easy, but it may be very difficult to create great boring music. What would be the point? Well, it is anti-social. And that has a tinge of danger, a whiff of subversiveness. But aside from timing just how fast this cd could clear a room, are there any other clues? We'll start with the obvious: Geisterfaust is not very listener-friendly. Of the five tracks, only one -- Kleiner Finger -- offers a tempo fast enough to perceive the melody line in a traditional Rhodes and breathy sax workout à la Sunset Mission... altho even this song slows to half speed at around the three minute mark. However, I haven't listened to it at high volumes... that may make it more imaginative.

Second off, the whole semi-goth thing is gone. Look at the art direction for the cd sleeves. Sunset Mission is basically black, with pix of airguns in a shop window on one side and a city sunset on the other... the message was pretty clear: urban darkside fun... tattoos, violence, hostility, solitary wanderings, suicidal impulses... sorta like Hamlet out for a night by himself in Berlin.

Black Earth was so black it featured shiny black ink on matt black ink. It came complete with a skull on the cover, and it was also pretty clear: death-related rural fun... sorta like Hamlet lurking in a graveyard, discussing visions, fate, and the physicality of death. Both certainly interesting... with highly imaginative song titles.

What we have now is a light yellow cd cover which shows a colour drawing of the blue flower from a Gentian plant. The cd's title is almost too obscure to be read, rendered in white in an old-fashioned gothic font -- light on light, the opposite of Black Earth. Life vs Death, you could suppose, but this life is minor, obscure, minimalist. According to Clöser, "We felt that the loneliness of our music was so strong that there was no sense to underline that feeling. We could have taken a pair of trunks as well. This idea seemed us to be too funny, so we took this innocent flower." As it turns out, Gentians have been used by humans since ancient times as herbal remedies, and taste very bitter. Is that better than Alanis Morrisette ironic? The only other art is of the skeleton of four fingers and the thumb, laid out in place, but without the rest of the hand. Less is more. How much more is lots and lots of less?

And so we let the fingers do the talking.

The Fünf Fabelhaft Fingers of Dr. Geisterfaust.

Geisterfaust is divided, literally and musically, into five "fingers". Each song is named for a finger, and the order they're played in is: Zeigefinger (index finger), Daumen (thumb), Ringfinger (ring finger), Mittelfinger (middle finger), Kleiner Finger (little finger). According to Clöser, "Each finger has a special meaning in Germany and the tracks and the order of their appearance follow these special meanings." Well, damned if I know what those "special meanings" could be, so I asked Clöser. "The meaning of the fingers has nothing to do with esoteric things, but with its meaning and/or skills in practical life." Which should give people who like to use The Finger lots to think about. The rest of us will just have to finger it out for ourselvesw. And given the unfamiliar nature of this music, one wonders if even knowing The Club's own creative rationales for each song would shed much light on the music itself, which operates with few literary clues, aside from the slow clenching of chords and the pointing of notes. And, one must admit, none of this is as exciting as Painless Steel or Vigilante Crusade.

In any case, the mood is requiem-like, rather than living; reminiscent, rather than present. And unlike the cuts on Sunset Mission and Black Earth, there is much less variety in the songs -- especially "spatial" variety, which I think gives Bohren's music an eerie, three-dimensional quality.

OK, enough lead-in, what about the Fingers? OK, the first song, Zeigefinger, opens the cd with a 20 minute meander through the cold vastness of solitary space, a keyboard-led chordal exploration of slo-mo extravagance which points to the major doom themes of the work -- alienation, melancholy, loneliness -- as expressed through a type of music which seems to have no beginning or end, but rather an infinite loop of sometimes pleasant, sometimes harsh piano chords accented with drum and bass rhythms. Boring? Dangerously so.

Zeigefinger is also unusual insofar as The Club uses studio musicians to augment their usually sparse sound. Included in the mix is a bass trombone, tuba and 10-person choir. The trombone and tuba tend to blend in with the Big Chords The Club plays, but the choir is interesting, singing a sequence of sustained notes using a distant, mechanical filtering to give a metallic edge to the sound.

Aside from these minor intrusions, Zeigefinger is powerful, relentless and ponderous in its exaggerated assault on the Great Nothingness. Like the index finger itself, dominant among digits, Zeigefinger points the way for the rest of the cd: multi-instrument chords appear and warp and weft in long decay, with Clöser either letting it roll on unencumbered, or adding small joints of interest on the Rhodes or vibes.

If Zeigefinger allows for a small shout/answer with the rest of the fingers, then Daumen (thumb) is a blunt statement of undirected strength, with power chords fading through shimmering space and a sullen, slightly discordant melody of no discernable beat or tempo. Thumb. It's the oppository digit to the index finger that makes it possible to grasp. Even if you're grasping at nothing interesting.

Ringfinger begins with a series of chords played on stringed instruments, interspersed with those interesting little sounds the fingers make while they slide over the strings.This song also picks up the Big Chord structure, this time filling the long decays with vibes, Rhodes and the aforementioned strings & finger work. The piece does seem to build and shows some excitement near its halfway point, but then again acquiesces into what must be heartbeats in the migraine mind, pile drivers of pain which again give way to light, ethereal moments before the chain gang tempo of thunder chords again rips up the aural soundscape.

Mittelfinger. It flows so effortlessly from Ringfinger you can't really tell. The bombs are still falling indiscriminately from the night skies. The booming chords still burst forth like the unpredictable firing of radioactive material. Is this music? Perhaps not. After awhile it sounds like the strangled call of a minor character
in a novel by Kafka.

Kleiner Finger appears to be an anomaly. It begins as the others, with a few depth charge chords, then moves into a more trad jazz sound, with keyboards working over a drums/bass rhythm section. Clöser's sensitive sax makes a reappearance, and the piece has enough of a tempo to discern a sorrowful melody, selfconsciously mournful, but offering little in the way of pyrotechnics.

So, What's It All About? A Buncha Boring Old Geisters?

It's my theory that The Club likes to dedicate a cd to a musical exploration of a specific theme. In order to achieve that kind of sound, they began to invent a style of music -- sorta creepy, unsettled music, that seemed to offer insight into such various darkside conditions as alienation, melancholy, loneliness, depression --- like modern day Kafkas with their unfinished novels.

In Sunset Mission and Black Earth, Bohren managed an incredible feat: they managed to sound "doom-ridden", but not gloomy, or maudlin, or silly in a goth manner. The Club did, in fact, sound incredibly smooth and complex, with long, rambling nightwalks taken in cool, measured strides. Virtually unknown in North America, Bohren's first two cds have been immediately liked and replayed by everyone who has heard my copies.

Geisterfaust, I know, will not elicit the same response. First, there will be the initial disappointment that The Club hasn't stayed the course and continued on the SM and BE musical direction. Second, this cd is so repetitious it requires a lot more effort on behalf of the listener to stay focused, to work within the tediously unconventional structure, otherwise other thoughts readily intrude and the pieces quickly recede to aural wallpaper. It's this lack of "easy visuality" I find the greatest change in Geisterfaust over the prior two cds. Put it another way: think of what it was like to keep reading Franz Kafka's The Castle after you were about halfway through the book. K. is getting absolutely nowhere, nothing is really happening, even the words don't seem to be leading anywhere... and you already know the book is unfinished! That irrational fascination may be the guiding force behind Geisterfaust.

Another change is that Clöser plays a lot less sax on this cd. When I asked him about this, he said: "I'm not playing more keyboards, but less sax. When we started with GF the only agreement between us was less sax, or better no sax, because we thought it's time for some rougher stuff after the pleasant Sunset Mission and the eventful Black Earth."

Rougher stuff it is. And when Clöser says rougher, he means harder. Geisterfaust does have a flagellant aspect which, I sadly predict, will cut into its airplay, even though the cd has moments of chordal decay which are a joy to hear in their reverberating complexity. Overall, though, the "difficult nature" of the structure, the glacial movements, the obscurity of the sonic imagery... this album may be the most artistically adventurous The Club has attempted, but its lack of any meat will no doubt influence its commercial potential.

Clöser himself seems aware of this situation, as he explains: "Geisterfaust is slower, more uneventful and, how the label says, 'not for sale'. We will see, but we are looking forward to the first reactions."

Well, the label may know what they're saying with their pessimistic analysis of Geisterfaust. I'm thinking this collection could be an acquired taste because of the difficulty listeners will have with The Club's musical vision. But this cd could get the raised mittelfinger from the buying public, and that's too bad, cause it is a masterpiece of the recording art -- as well as possessing its own odd, beautifully cold anti-logic.

Daumen Up For Production Values.

Difficult as Geisterfaust is to hum along with, it was recorded with superior skill and sensitivity. Notwithstanding the incredible difficulty of playing this type of music -- there are moments when the drummer must wait at long as eight seconds between beats -- the studio and its engineers must also take a bow for the delicate way in which they perfectly captured all the sound, from the speaker-popping nuclear chords to the subtle rub of a finger on the strings of an electric bass.

These Fingers Of Doom Don't Do Much. That's The Point.

I haven't tried listening to Geisterfaust yet when I'm drunk... but that's an option Clöser suggested when I asked him if the name of the cd had any special meaning: "Geisterfaust could be the name of spirits, which knocks anyone out after one or two glasses." Maybe. This cd may give a few listeners a knockout punch, but one womnders if it will make it to the airwaves as often as Black Earth or Sunset Mission. And while I didn't expect The Club to play these songs much in concert, I've been told they did perform Zeifinger, Daumen and Ringfinger on their recent mini-tour of England.

Hands down, I'm giving this a three, maybe a four, out of five... I like it, but I like it for reasons other than for the kind of physical noir pleasures offered by Sunset Mission and Black Earth. I want to grab onto more, but it's difficult to hang onto a tired old ghost with little to say.

© Rick McGrath 4/05

OJO RATING: Ajo's rating


Culture Court | e-mail Ojo | the Ojo Files | Features

Media Court | © 2005 | Lawrence Russell