(Matador; 1999)

By Conrad Amenta | 20 June 2006

Instrumental post-rock at its best is as harmonious as a de Stijl painting. Also called the “new plastic art,” de Stijl sought order through simplification, utopia by reduction to the essentials, its primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines correlative to William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens. Translating literally as “the style,” de Stijl, like instrumental post-rock, can’t really impart complex ideas (like a political ideology). It instead impresses moods, placing primary colors as meticulously as post-rock places sounds, to emphasize the centrality of a core image induced by the removal of conceptual abstraction: enforcing style that is the extent of substance. Any overarching motifs perceived by the viewer are imposed via connections made during the evocation of mood, or have to be stated elsewhere, like the gift shop.

And I say post-rock instead of, say, instrumental jazz, because reduction to essential elements is precisely what initially made post-rock “post”. Where jazz is often viewed on a scale moving from be-bop staples to the avant-garde and abstract (as well as having spun, and been spun of, rich historical and social fabric), instrumental post-rock is not only distinguished by what it lacks (primarily vocals) but also its emphasis on technicality in a way that removes from the performer the obligation of anticipating listener and genre expectations, declines the imposition of layering meaning upon meaning, and strays from both the divergent realm of avant-garde or experimental pop music and from jazz’s territory. For post-rock there is only technique, like clean, tight lines impassively crisscrossing to form boxes populated by colors and neutral spaces.

Before mentioning that Sweep the Leg Johnny are considered post-rock and possess both vocals and a wandering, loose exploration, remember that post-rock is built up and broken down like any other genre: it cycles through fresh modes before returning to its roots. Post-rock has developed into variations at first unrecognizable, but German post-rock group Couch, like fellow Krautrockers Neu!, exemplify a distillation of the genre’s core elements – an intense synchronization of instruments into orderly, perfect melodies both simple and immediate. Couch, like musical Imagists, are minimalists; their ideologies aren’t any less complex simply because they have found a new and more direct way of stirring the subject (be it to cognition, harmony or just acknowledgement).

For a band whose last two releases came via Matador (Fantasy and 2001’s Profane), a label renowned for paradoxically being both independent and a harbor for a fleet of pseudo-celebrity personalities like John Spencer, Chan Marshall, and Robert Pollard, Fantasy both effortlessly achieves the clear goals it sets for itself and stands out from the field of eccentrics by depersonalizing its contents, though too often this is probably the reason why the band is overlooked. Fantasy is not about aping for the camera or dressing New York. It’s more timeless than that.

I had accidentally mis-set my clock radio, somehow making sure that I would be woken at 4 a.m. The alarm, no matter how low the volume, will usually scare the daylights out of me, but on that morning CBC Radio (which, because government-run and thus completely lacking any kind of marketing or commercial acumen, has a penchant for playing interesting and artistic shows at hours when virtually no one is listening) woke me as simply as if it had flicked a switch. My eyes opened and I was granted a clarity and alertness more focused than panicked. “Gegen Den” was playing with the precise intensity of a national anthem for farming collectives. It was not serene or sedating but actually ferocious rock and roll music, despite the exactness of Thomas Geltinger’s drums. What made “Gegen Den” so immediate and bracing (and made me call the radio station at 4am to find out what band was just playing) was that it was perfectly - scarily, in fact - performed. “Gegen Den” hops dynamics, from closed hi-hat and bass played on bottom frets to open hi-hat and a guitar melody as back and forth as a dot-matrix printer, and it moves on to a wash of crash cymbal and chords, as smoothly efficient as a factory robot assembling a Taurus. Its towering conclusion, the triumphal hymn of a ride cymbal washing the mix at precisely the right moment, is as much an argument for the ‘Repeat’ button as any song I’ve heard, and, even five years after first hearing it in bed at four in the morning, the exactness of the band – the elusive quality of “tightness” sought by musicians and critics alike - kills with steely resolve.

Couch is also among the best post-rock bands because of the way they reverse each instrument’s traditional role. Jurgen Soder’s guitar doesn’t meander or take the spotlight with histrionic leads so much as play the role customarily reserved for bass and drums. His stolid downstrokes erect walls onto which are painted Stefanie Bohm’s sometimes mechanical (“Heimweg 78”), sometimes pastoral (“Camaro”) keyboard lines. Michael Heilrath’s bass, which is particularly dirty, distinct, melodic and full of character on “Slogan” and giant “Gegen Den,” is given the primary task of establishing melodic hooks while Soder’s guitar repeats with the warmth of a hummed mantra. There are two distinct impressions given the first few songs into Fantasy: that there is repetition of simplicity, and that because none of the instruments are playing what they’re supposed to be playing, perhaps that simplicity is somehow the album’s principal strength.

It’s unclear whether a band (or genre for that matter) can or should be rewarded for leaving the literalism of lyrics to others. After all, Couch will never be able to help us understand a war with their music the way Neil Young’s “Southern Man” sought to provide some perspective, but that detachedness is also their music’s strength. Because what they play is so difficult to pin to a personality (or a character mocked up through the spin of media and advertising), Couch isn’t subject to mythologizing or the ideologies and biographies that come with dating oneself. And they aren’t subject to distractions distancing the artist and their listener from the music at hand; that makes Fantasy universal. The fantasy that is being referenced is, it turns out, clarity. Imagine two images: musical notes on one page and the stylistic acid test of a genre, placed one on top of the other. Couch’s goal is to unerringly and steadfastly play music that is utopist in its minimalism, and here it’s a fantasy undeniably realized.