Schwefel - "Unlimited Years" (1999, Sulphur Sonic 10948)
Schwefel - "Edge City" (2001, Apollyon /EFA 12197-2)
Schwefel - "Mystifier" (2003, Sulphur Sonic 11109)
Uploaded to Aural Innovations: September 2003
There is a saying that you canít miss what you donít know. Well, I knew that thereís a band called Schwefel in my hometown Mannheim, Germany, but I saw them playing live for the first time in early 2001 when they promoted their then new CD "Edge City". I liked the show, but it was one of the local events that let you spend a good night outside your appartment, but nothing worth to be mentioned in a review for international readers. I didnít even care to find the table where the CD was sold (Iím sure there was one...). Two and a half years that I became aware of this band again when "Mystifier" was released and their promo party was announced as an open air free concert together with other bands from the local underground (you can find the link to a festival report at the end of this review). It was only then that I really got to know the band Schwefel (playing in a new line up), bought their currently available CDs and learned what Iíd been missing...
Unlimited Years, the first CD in that row, simply blew me away. I didnít believe what I was hearing. It was some of the finest and most professional Rock music from Germany that Iíve ever heard (all that "Kosmische" and "Krautrock" stuff included). Reading the booklet I learned that Unlimed Years is a compilation CD featuring tunes reaching back to the mid Eighties and taken from LPs and CDs with names like "Schizophrenic Party", "Metropolis", "Hot in Hongkong", "Motor Psycho" and a few more... completely sold out and with no plans for repressing by the original labels. To give you an idea of the "early Schwefel", imagine a mixture of Eno in his "Babeís on Fire" period, the Alex Harvey Band and the Dutch cult band Catapilla and - of course - traces of Krautrock presented in a liquidity most of the "genuine" Krautrock bands were unable to perform. On Unlimted Years you get at least five tunes you will certainly expect that theyíve been big hits in a part of the world where you donít live ("Schizophrenic Party", "Metropolis", "Motor Psycho", "Champagne Champagne And the Golden Rain", "Ghost"), and some other very good original tunes and some fine versions of tunes of other artists. To return to the beginning of this article, thereís one tune where the "missing of the unknown" even hurt. "This Is For" is a tune that perfectly bridges Krautrock and the attempts of some new bands from Germany to create some new kind of genuine German Rock music. I added this one to my all time favorites.
Edge City is a record about the hidden dark side of German wealth and welfare. The opener is "Nose Kid Knows" and the liner notes say "if you canít stand this title, you should stop the CD now and give it away" - nuff said, a serious warning leading over to the title track. The lyrics in "Edge City" are the observations of a taxi driver (night shift only) telling about crime and fear, three day love affairs, scars of bad lives seen with nightshifts eyes... Next is "The World Biggest Toxic Waste Dump", an instrumental tune that uses the tools usually taken for Techno productions for a sonic picture of industrial pollution (you find the corresponding photograph in the booklet). Next is "Social Nightmare", an emphatic tune about a person who maybe has killed his girlfriend (but we donít know) and maybe has burnt down his house (but we donít know either), a story about a member of the working poor: "Donít kill yourself, Jonny/Weíll build it up again". I could continue to write a few lines about each of the tunes, thirteen altogether. The direction is clear. Standouts among the remaining tunes are "Kakerlakenchor" ("cockroachesí choir" - and you can really hear the roaches singing!), "Fleischfresserlied" ("carnivoreís song"), "Space Is Deep" (where the "space" is rather looked for on earth... and coming with almost pornographical lyrics: "Geisha bondage, it will make you swoon/Strings and ropes/A foolís cocoon") and a version of "2000 Lightyears From Home" as the closing tune. All pieces are almost exclusively performed by Norbert Schwefel, on a few tunes he had the help of a bass and a keyboard player. This is the reason why the whole CD rather does not sound like a band performance. Well, Techno still seems to be some kind of a bad word, but in this case Techno in itís Industrial version is only the means of production, not the content. With Edge City you get a strong and partly even breathtaking piece of societal criticism - but no accoustic guitars or a band performance usually associated with protest songs. The Techno/Industrial framework - besides the lyrics and the song structure of most of the tunes - is a constitutive element of the CD in a way that, Iím sure, even Techno haters will accept as the appropriate form of artistic expression.
Mystifier, Schwefelís latest release, was designed as a counter outline to "Edge City". On June 21st, 2001 seven members of the Schwefel live line up and other musical collaborators recieved a set of tarot cards and were asked to draw some of the 22 joker cards of that game (fool, tower, death, sun etc.). Their task was to deliver compositions according to the cards they had drawn. There should be exactly 22 tunes in the end and none of them should be longer than four minutes. And there was a time limit: June 21, 2002 - exactly one year later. But things turned out a bit different. As Schwefel as a band never had permanent members for a long time you canít say that the group "disbanded", but quite a few members of that "alliance of mysteries" were spread all over the place, some of them didnít contribute anything, others less than expected. So, for a while Norbert Schwefel was even thinking to give up the whole project. But almost exactly one more year later, the result was released, and this is what Mystifier is about: There are 22 tunes, all of them (with the exception of one) are shorter than four minutes, and all tunes are reflecting elements of the tarot game. The CD is long (75:56 min) and contains very varied material. I donít think that it might make sense to give short descriptions of all the tunes, but it doesnít make sense to emphasize "standouts" either as each tune has the same "right" to be on this record (itís rather outstanding that this demanding concept works). As a listner you have only one chance: Take the time for a full listen and consider it as whole art. Each tune is a miniature with its own character. Some of them are rather Rock style, others rather ballads, again others rather soundscapes with a bit of vocals, some of them even art songs. Quite a few of the tunes contain samples of classical music (Bach, Schubert, and even Wagner). "Mystifier" is a very carefully done and lavish production, quite unlikely for a band released CD. Again Schwefel were able to add something new and exciting to the genre of distinguished and demanding Rock music.
You can visit Schwefelís website at www.norbertschwefel.de (the site is in German only) or email Schwefel at email@example.com.
CLICK HERE to read coverage of the Sulphur Sonic Festival.
Reviewed by Frank Gingeleit