Outré Monde - Sabers and Kosmischer Läufer
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.
Back then, when the earth was young and pungent, Craig Hayes and I had a column at Last Rites called Outré Monde. The concept was simple; we each picked an album available on bandcamp, then emailed back and forth discussing what we thought about said albums. The laid-back conversational style suited us both. It stripped the veneer of authority from our opinions. The result was more like it was when we were young, excitably forcing our music on our friends and dying to hear what they thought.
However, it didn’t last long. It ended less than a year after it began, an innocent victim of our growing disillusion with the grind of reviewing. Craig and I both stepped away to preserve our sanity.
Fast forward a few years and, with our sanity now well pickled and left in the bomb shelters of our hearts, we’ve decided to give it another go.
Outré Monde is back.
HIGHTER: Mr. Hayes - kia ora!
Let me say it’s weird to be doing this again. Not bad by any means, but weird.
With that done, I’d like to introduce you to Sabers and their album Specter. It’s an old record, released in 2003 on Neurot, but I’d never heard of them before a few weeks ago. My friend Gus gave me a Panel Donor record and then casually asked if I’d heard the project the drummer and bassist from that band did after Panel Donor broke up. I was oblivious (as always), but when he said it was soundscapes and noise made with loops, field recordings and butt-loads of guitar pedals I was all in.
Now Craig, what have you chosen for my ears?
HAYES: Kia ora, comrade! I have to admit this isn't the first time someone has described doing something with me as "weird”. (And I did get a little weird with my music pick for you too.) I decided on Kosmischer Läufer's Volume Three, which has a curious backstory attached. The album's touted as the work of Martin Zeichnete, who recorded it in East Berlin 30 years ago, and Zeichnete was a "disciple of the Kosmische Muzik of the likes of Kraftwerk, Can and Neu! that was drifting across the Wall from the West”. His motorik music was apparently used/exploited by the DDR's Olympic Committee to train their athletes at the time. Now, obviously, that's all 100% fictitious. But it's also a far more interesting story than the limp ‘Satanic’ bullshit sold by the likes of Ghost. Or the ridiculous backstory fabricated by that black metal band Ghost Bath.
HIGHTER: The Kosmicher Läufer backstory is just plausible enough to be perfectly transparent but to feel right. It’s a fine line and they nailed it.
But before we hit Volume Three, let’s dive a little deeper on Specter. You and I have talked a lot over the years about drones and ambient music, about soundscapes and field recordings, and how most of that always struck me as kinda boring. Well, things have changed in the Highter head since we last did Outré Monde. Since I started messing around with sound a couple of years ago I’ve found myself drawn to this music more and more. I’m less interested in songs and more interested in sonic experiences. This Sabers record scratches so many of my current itches it’s not even funny; howling dissonance, cavernous reverbs, oscillating low end, and drums that sound like drums. Throw in all the textural loops and field recordings and I’d happily live in here for weeks at a time.
How’d it strike you?
HAYES: I loved Spector. It ticks all the boxes for me with its lysergic loops, dark field recordings, and immersive drones. (And I love that you're more down with the ol' drones these days too!) Spector has a real mesmeric depth about it, and I really enjoyed its mix of dense soundscapes and wide-open drones.
I have to admit I was predisposed to enjoying Spector because it’s a Neurot Records release, and I love that label to an unhealthy degree. Did you ever hear Neurot's releases from Neurosis' drone/ambient side-project Tribes of Neurot? My favorite is the band’s 2002 album, Adaptation and Survival, which is entirely comprised of remixed and distorted insect sounds –– it’s fucking magic. What I love about that album is that it underscores that there’s a million ways to interpret what music is and what it can be. And the experimental nature of Spector highlights that point too.
To be honest, that’s why I sent Kosmischer Läufer's Volume Three to you. Krautrock and Kosmische music have been reinterpreted/rearranged by an endless stream of bands set on reframing or modernizing that motorik beat or famed synth sound. I don’t have problem with that. But I love the old guard most of all. And Volume Three sounds far more faithful to those early years of German electronica.
HIGHTER: My ears and yours align this time around, Craig. Volume Three is faithful in spirit if not exactly in tone. This is a good thing. The style of composition rings true; however, there are enough differences in sound that it doesn’t feel like a pointless recreation. Those tonal differences – brought about by modern synthesis processes, if I were to hazard a guess – also play up the backstory. The unheard East German triumphant electronica would be different, the same way early Russian synthesizers have an often drastically different sound than their Western counterparts. It allows for it to be retro and new at the same time.
Yet each time I listen to Volume Three I think more and more about the imaginary backstory. I hate drawing on meaning from what is at root an artist’s statement (I believe that ultimately art must live and die outside of context), but in this case it colors the perception of the music so fully that I’m having a hard time distancing myself from the conceit. The tracks posited as a lost soundtrack to an animated film work because of that idea; they feel cinematic. Remove the idea and I think I’d find them sketches more than songs. I wish I hadn’t read about it before listening. Would I like it as much or find it too revivalist? Or in the case of the soundtrack pieces, half-baked? I’ll never know. Knowing the premise changed my listening.
I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent about art and context and the strengths and weaknesses associated with heavily conceptual music, but as per usual I can’t keep my focus for more than five seconds.
Want to wrap this up and put a fine bow on it?
HAYES: You make a good point about the role of context in works of art/music. Obviously, context is a crucial facet in any conceptual project. But I don't agree that conceptual music necessarily has to stand on its own. Sometimes it’s important to me that it does. Sometimes it’s of no consequence at all. Ultimately, it all comes down to how much value I put on a piece of music. Or what my expectations are. Or how much I’ve invested in the narrative.
In the case of Volume Three, the stakes just aren’t that high. I definitely understand how the album’s backstory got in the way for you. But, for me, it was just as framing mechanism, and little else. It certainly plays no role in my enjoyment of the music. I know Volume Three is sold as a wraparound tale. But I paid for the synth and spirit –– not the silly storyline.
I really enjoyed the album on those terms, and it’s a good reminder that we’re all free to interpret and buy into music as we see fit. What matters to you might well be meaningless to me, and I like that.
I like that music is able to be deciphered and appreciated in myriad ways. That’s why I loved the Sabers album you sent me. It’s sonically dense but still wide open emotionally. It’s free to be unraveled and understood in many ways. And unlike Volume Three, Specter isn’t encumbered by any potential baggage.
HIGHTER: I can’t do anything here but nod at your sagacity, as always. Until next time. Hei konā rā.