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...
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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