Two of the big names of experimental German music come together for an album of unique depth, beauty and power
‘500M’ is the latest in a series of improvised collaborations between Hans-Joachim Irmler – keyboard wizard of pioneering krautrockers Faust – and noted German percussionists. Post-punk drum machinist and programmer Gudrun Gut is the guest here, with a piece that is very different to Jochen Irmler’s last release, which featured legendary Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.
Irmler & Liebezeit’s ‘Flut’ album was all about the thrilling bravura of one-take improv. This time, however, the interest lies in the apposite contrast between the sound of Irmler’s instinctively exploratory, at times psychedelic organ, and Gudrun Gut’s far more disciplined programmed drum patterns. Again recorded at Irmler’s Faust Studio, which lies 500 metres above sea level (hence the title) on the banks of the Danube in the rural Bavarian town of Scheer, this is the sound of two eras of music-making conjoined. In the main, it’s a resounding, immersive success.
The initial approach was made by Gut, a founding member of both Einstürzende Neubauten and Malaria! and a central figure on the Berlin experimental electronic scene. Irmler subsequently invited her to play at his Klangbad Festival, after which they discussed how they might work together despite their contrasting styles.
“Improv is not exactly my thing,” says Gut. “I don’t work that way. I tend to construct something, then refine what’s been recorded using the computer until everything fits. But Jochen’s organ playing has always fascinated me. He plays and plays, while I tend to dissect everything, then deconstruct and collage…”
You may wonder how two such approaches could possibly succeed in combination, but the opener here, ‘Fruh’, gives an immediate taste of the potential. Gut’s precise programming anchors Irmler’s instinctive tendency to extemporise and explore, and allows his customised keyboards to flow in a stream-of-consciousness musical meditation. It’s clear they’re holding something back, though, and when the programmed beats let rip, thumping against Irmler’s swirling, vintage valve-generated psychedelia, it’s dramatic stuff.
What follows is perhaps unexpected, but it makes perfect sense. First in ‘Chlor’ and then in ‘Mandarine’, the considered, carefully layered percussive elements are brought to the fore and are framed by Irmler’s wonderfully restrained abstractions. With ‘Traum’ (‘Dream’), Gut’s atmospheric vocals lead into an initially foreboding netherworld, until the shimmering, celestial keyboards take over. Both elements then combine and trade places, at turns offering light in sharp focus, but then nuanced shade and uncertainty. Just like all the best dreams.
You’re still under with ‘Noah’. Calmer, initially near walking-pace, it’s given gravitas with an injection of deep bass. Then Irmler’s chaste notes lead to a point where a heavily-treated male voice, filtered through some subterranean PA system, surely announces the imminent arrival of your waking consciousness. In ‘Parfum’, meanwhile, Gut’s machine-like, relentlessly industrial intro is given irresistible warmth by Irmler, riffing with Hammond-esque patterns of purposeful groove. It’s a real highlight, showcasing two very contrasting talents working in thrilling unison.
If there is a weak point, it’s probably the uneventful wash that is ‘Brücke’, but the closing track, ‘500 Meter’, is something else. Wending deep into reverie, its hypnotic, whispered female chant – “higher, higher” – serves only to take you under, under. It’s a quite brilliant finale to a quite brilliant album. And there might not be any way of coming back.