- Justus Köhncke’s two previous full-lengths on Kompakt, Was Ist Musik (2002) and Doppelleben (2005), were slightly frustrating affairs. Both albums were filled with clever pop structures, quality sound design and subtle shifts in mood, but somehow they tended to fall short of pure emotional captivation. Partly of course this was due to Köhncke’s notorious vocals, which are at times just too deadpan and at times just too camp (check his destruction of Jürgen Paape’s seminal ‘So Weit Wie Noch Nie’ for the evidence), but the albums were also occasionally marred by Köhncke’s weakness for soft-focus disco, with kitsch rather than glamorous and decadent results.
Safe and Sound combines many of these tendencies, but happily, it’s a much more satisfying listen. So much so you’ve got to wonder what inspired the difference. Perhaps this more muscular sound is down to Köhncke spending a lot of time in the clubs, or perhaps it’s a product of his new studio (located in an old butcher shop). The newfound help of the album’s co-writer/producer Fred Heimermann (certainly on ‘Tilda’, but likely more) might also be a contributing factor. But perhaps there was just something in the air? Those leaves on the Pop Ambient-esque cover, after all, do look suspiciously like marijuana.
Köhncke’s disco tendency come to the fore on several tracks, but more confidently than on the previous two albums. With its ‘70s strings, ‘Parage’ is downright funky and would, in an ideal world, play on radios in Cadillac cars with whitewall tyres. ‘Molybdän’ lives up to its elemental name (attn non-scientists: ‘molybdenum’ is a heavy metal) and mimics more disco ball glitter than disco sound itself with sparkling stabs of sound and winding analogue washes. More overtly disco is the brilliant opener ‘Yacht’ which pays strong homage to ‘Slave to the Rhythm’, but then develops its own melodic narrative.
Grace Jones isn’t the artist from the past to get name-checked. The first single from the album, ‘Feuerland’, is a cover of Krautrocker Michael Rother’s track from his 1977 LP ‘Flammende Herzen’. Not disco, but big on authentic retro synths and guitars, all underscored by strong beats and a motorik groove. Köhncke also gives himself a work over, updating ‘Love and Dancing’ from Total 7, while ‘$26’, one of the albums most potent tracks, seems to borrow the slick bass riff from Thomas/Mayer’s ‘Panic Room’.
The most notable departure from the past, however, is the absence of vocals. ‘(It’s Gonna be) Alright’ is the only track to feature Köhncke’s voice, and even that is limited to repeating the title as a simple refrain. The music underneath, meanwhile, is promising, but the sentiment of the track is a little too simple to be truly anthemic. Elsewhere purely pop-ambient tracks such as ‘Tilda’ and ‘Spukhafte Fernwirkung’ (trans: ‘Spooky Long-range Effect’) capture more evanescent emotions, and work nicely to change the pace of the album.
Overall, apart from a few flat moments (such as the closing title track), this is an excellent pop techno record.
03 Love and Dancing (Update)
07 (It’s Gonna Be) Alright
09 Spukhafte Fernwirkung
10 Safe and Sound