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Part 5: Out into the open

img  Tobias Fischer

And yet, almost imperceptibly, things are changing. By the mid-00's, the drone-genre is still far from being played on format radio. But it has somehow managed to exert an influence on many adjacent genres and created a field of mutually supportive scenes. In 2006, Canadian Aidan Baker, whose star has slowly risen through a seemingly absurdly prolific release schedule, publishes Oneiromancer on renowned Bremen-based imprint Die Stadt, followed-up by Exoskeleton Heart and Noise of Silence on leading metal labels Crucial Bliss and Hyperblasted the following year – first signs of communities converging, the underground rising to the surface and audiences, who would formerly have felt confused at the idea of a single man entering the stage with nothing but a guitar and a couple of pedals, now displaying an astounding openness towards submitting themselves to clouds of crunching feedback and sweet fuzz. In 2007, I visit the State-X New Forms Festival in The Hague and am witness to a gloriously unadjusted performance, in which SUNN O))) fascinate, alienate and provoke a huge and fanatic crowd of fans and flabbergasted newcomers. Neidhardt, as an avid listener and in his work as a journalist, is following these developments with keen interest:

    „Some people were claiming that drone is a somehow archaic form of music that attracts people's attention exactly because of this archaism; to them, it's like a genetic memory, like the smell of a lump of earth or the looks of water and fire. But in the end, with drones, it is as with any other kind of music: The mere fact that there are so many people doing it doesn't automatically mean that there is a lot of outstanding quality. Maybe some guys today get fooled or, to be more precise, fool themselves into believing that drones are easy to produce: Just a bit of effects-tweaking – either hardware or software based - and that's it. Drones, as any other music, need compositional work and/or strong inspiration, too. Otherwise the result is plain boring.“

It is a perception mirrored by the growing incapacity of the press of finding
adequate and, most of all, unspent words to describe and appreciate the phenomenon and of a veritable flood of releases all catering to a similar sound and working with a familiar palette. Suddenly, the need for someone with an identifiable and unique voice of his own seems as urgent as never before. With regards to his recognisably warm, rich and textured tube-amplifier sound and attention to structure, it seems as though there could be renewed interest in Neidhardt's work.

Returning to the limelight
In a surprising twist, it is Tomas Köner, Neidhardt's first inspiration for his  path into the world of experimental music, who, in 2009, signs responsible for an unexpected return to the limelight, by suggesting a remix of one of the Bergen pieces. It kindles new enthusiasm in Neidhardt, who immediately reactivates his contacts in a bid of making this a truly special release. Curiously, Köner never gets round to finishing his own reconstruction. But over an extremely short span of time, three artists do: Mirko Uhlig, whose strikingly concise, delicate and ultraconcentrated version of „Rauschbogen“ kicks off Bergen - Skizzen + Notizen for Belgian label Consouling in style. Dirk Serries under his Fear-Falls-Burning-alias, whose session with the Bergen-material results in a dark and minimal soundscape baring the characteristic traits of both projects. And Segment, who introduces a gently pulsing rhythmical element to „Bergen: See“, the quarter-of-an-hour-long epic concluding the original LP. By adding himself to the equation with a „re-amped and live-dubbed“ edit of „Horizon Wo“, which is as close to a vision of one-note-minimalism as one could possibly imagine, Neidhardt ends the record with a sorrowful and yet consoling loop, which ebbs away peacefully into the distance.

While a remix-collection could easily have seemed like a lukewarm attempt at a comeback, the personal connections between this collective and their shared sense of approach and aesthetics turn it into an impressive and entirely cohesive effort, which constitutes an integral musical statement in its own right and paves the way for the all-important third phase of the N-journey. At the same time, Skizzen + Notizen complements Bergen in a way which considerably enriches the original. Listening to these pieces feels like flicking through a diary, of trying to envisage nostalgic details within one's mind. But only snippets, soft images and the basic outlines of tracks remain.

Almost exactly in sync with Skizzen + Notizen, two other new works see the light of day and will turn Neidhardt's comeback into one of the more exciting in recent time. Even though these follow-ups - Prora (on fledgling quality-imprint Droenhaus) and Trischen (again on Genesungswerk) do not match the epic dimensions of Bergen - with Prora, especially, clocking in at a mere twenty five minutes – they are to be regarded as seminal proofs of the N-concept carrying further than just one full-length. The former documents a journey to the island of Rügen, a place imbued by the bizarrely unfitting combination of beautiful, unspoiled beaches on the one hand and the ugly traces of history on the other, with a large Nazi-era building complex still intact. Trischen, meanwhile, refers to a tiny island functioning as a bird resort in the Wadden Sea, to which a single bird keeper is assigned each season and which is otherwise entirely devoid of human life. Despite their – even by German standards – improbable names, these, then, are real places whose aura awards them a slightly unreal sensation, as though they were symbols and placeholders just as much as physical spaces.

It would certainly be an exaggeration to describe the accompanying tour with Serries as a triumph. But it does demonstrate how much the combination of almost two decades of experience and a still firmly intact curiosity can go in shaping an exciting and truly new sonic experience. This is what I note down in my concert report after the Berlin gig: „Sitting there up high on his stool with his instrument in his lap, he could well be a jazz-guitarist on a very strange trip. The notion that, in the end, drones are nothing but harmony, is taken to its logical extreme here: Following a hand-written score on a long roll of paper lying next to him, the music comes to life by passing through a labyrinthine chain of effect-pedals, entering as a series of straightforward chords and exiting as billowing tonal clouds, moving in colour from a sulfury yellow to a warm, resonant orange. Rather than complicating things in terms of composition, Neidhard is shaping the textural details of his creation: Slight irregularities in the way chords are struck, the occasional stray note or semi-harmonic addition and some piercing streaks of ebowed strings instead lead to a constantly shifting continuum resting safely within its own dream. Think blues, think jazz, think melancholic rock – then slow that down to the speed of thought after two bottles of Merlot on a far-off Mars colony and you've got a rough indication of what his serene, sorrowful and sentimental soulsearch sounds like. In a final sequence, the direction changes one last time, with the advent of sweet, sensual harmonies in the high-frequency registers, infrared light end of the frequential spectrum plaintively disappearing into the ether.“

After the concert is over, we all shake hands and go our seperate ways, the tour continuing and me driving home to digest what I have just experienced.

Relaxation and excitement
Six months later, we meet again, this time in my homebase of Münster. Neidhardt looks relaxed and excited at the same time. He has just received copies of his new LP from Denovali and is eager to show them to me and Serries, with whom he will again share the bill in an evening also featuring sympathetic Japanese noise guerilla KK Null. Gager has been conceptualised as a double album, with four long tracks on four sides of vinyl and after a failed attempt, the pressing plant has managed to get the frequential spectrum of this galaxy of intimations and whispers right. Finally finished and wrapped in a gatefold cover, it looks impressive indeed. The album is not the only reason why Neidhardt is so particularly happy with the Denovali connection. Only a couple of days earlier, he has played at the label's Swing Fest, performing live on stage with Post-Metal formation Kodiak and re-experiencing, as he recounts, what a powerful machine a band – as opposed to a solo musician - can be:

    „Performing with Kodiak proved that if your musical ideas fit and you pay respect to each other's work, things almost work by themseves, even if you barely know anything about the persons in front of you. That's exactly what things felt like at the Swing Fest. We just did our thing and, no surprise, we got results in a short time.“

He may well have sold more copies of his albums after that impressive performance than through mailorders and shops over several years of quiet prodding. And signs are good outside of the concert hall, too: There is a renewed interest from the media for his work. There are all of the collaborations mentioned at the beginning of this article. There is the idea of, in counterpoint to the various enrichments of his sound, to go back to a more roots-oriented approach with a reduced set-up or even an acoustic guitar. And then, that legendary bunker-installation with [multer], slightly reworked and presented from what Neidhardt calls „two different perspectives“, is slated for a release in the not too distant future on Consouling. Things are, quite clearly, coming full-circle.

They are certainly so in one important respect: All of the N-releases so far have dealt with the theme of water at least indirectly. The cliche of drone music constituting an „ocean“ of sound really is true here: There is always a strong sensation of things belonging together in Hellmut Neidhardt's music, but never any sense of a preordained direction. All movement is lateral, the surface neverending, the horizon infinite. To him, these images relate to something deeply personal emanating from a part of the artist's soul that's forever closed to outside observation and rational analysis. Perhaps it is this genetic code or Jung'ean archetype he was speaking of. Or perhaps it's just a sentimental feeling:

    „I like the sea. I always have. I can stand there looking and listening, it’s great each time. I also like the smell. I never had a feeling like that towards mountains, for example. I see a lot of relations between the sea and drone music: in a way, the sea is the world’s largest drone musician with the never ending sound of the waves, always the same and always different at the same time. There's this coming and going of the waves, the sort of layering in sound by the other elements involved, especially the wind. And of course, apart from focusing on the sound, the sea has an impact on your whole mind and body; it is sound, smell, color, the sum of it. And that is it with drone music: it really can go deeper than other music.“

For Neidhardt, the sea is a very captivating matter and so are the things around it. Drawing inspiration from it for his music requires no justification. It just feels right. And after twenty years of twists and turns, that may well the best reason there could possibly be to just follow his instincts and sail to wherever they may lead him.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Thomas K Geiter

Homepage: N
Homepage: Consouling Sounds Records
Homepage: Genesungswerk Recordings
Homepage: Denovali Records
Homepage: Droehnhaus Records