Friday, December 11, 2015

Einstürzende Neubauten - Lament (2014)

Artist: Einstürzende Neubauten
Album: Lament
Release Date: 7 November 2014
Label: Mute (BMG)
Producer: Boris Wilsdorf and Einstürzende Neubauten

Tracklisting:
01. Kriegsmaschinerie
02. Hymnen [adaptation of various national anthems]
03. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams [adapted from telegraphs between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II]
04. In de Loopgraf [Paul van den Broeck adaptation]
05. Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)
06. On Patrol in No Man's Land [James Reese Europe cover]
07. Achterland [Paul van den Broeck adaptation]
08. Lament: Lament
09. Lament: Abwärtsspirale
10. Lament: Pater Peccavi [Clemens non Papa adaptation]
11. How Did I Die?
12. Sag mir wo die Blumen sind [Pete Seeger/Max Colpet cover]
13. Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914 (dargestellt unter Zuhilfenahme eines Tierstimmenimitators) [Joseph Plaut adaptation]
14. All of No Man's Land Is Ours [James Reese Europe cover]


Einstürzende Neubauten are a fascinating and long-lasting band, and one of a relatively small number of German bands that both regularly sing in German and manage to have a following in English-speaking countries. While they have consistently embraced experimentation, philosophical songwriting, and custom-built instrumentation, they have changed quite a bit through the years. From their earliest days as a percussive, punk-inspired noise band, they evolved through the 80s into something of an avant-garde industrial band. The height of their English-speaking popularity probably came in the 90s, when frontperson Blixa Bargeld started occasionally writing in English, their music began fitting into existing structures and patterns, and they even sometimes embraced melody. They were early adopters of not just a multimedia and internet-enabled experience, which seems to have kept them active and productive when they otherwise may have broken apart, but also the idea of self-releasing music instead of depending solely on mainstream distribution.

However, even being the longtime fan that I was, I started to get somewhat skeptical of the band in the late 00s. Their supporter's projects sounded cool, but they were too expensive for me at the time. Besides, the most of the songs on the first supporter's album ended up (albeit in alternate forms) on the public-release Perpetuum Mobile, which was clearly the better album anyway. The second supporter's album, Grundstück, wasn't very good, and the third, Jewels, wasn't either, and it even got a public release, despite earlier claims that it would not. The next major release, Alles wieder offen, had some great songs but on the whole seemed like a step down from their earlier albums. During this period, they also had released a series of eight highly experimental albums that I had no interest in whatsoever. The last blow was when they were forced to cancel their planned USA tour in 2010 due to visa problems. At that point, the band seemed to enter a period of less activity.

It wasn't until 2014 that they released another album, Lament, and it still remains unreleased outside of Europe (and Hong Kong!?). Disappointed by recent albums and discouraged by the rather high cost of importing the album, I abstained from acquiring it until a friend remarked that the album was "absolutely astounding" in terms of "packaging, production, fidelity, performance, composition, and theme". That was plenty enough to convince me to give it a try!

I was not disappointed. Lament is not at all like previous Neubauten records, although it is decidedly an album by the same band. The hallmark of self-made instrumentation is abundant in spades, and Bargeld's precise, dramatic vocal delivery immediately identifies this as the work of Neubauten. But where previous albums were focused on matters of theory and concept, this album is firmly grounded in a very real and specific historical event: the assault on Diksmuide, Belgium by the German army at the outbreak of World War I. The town commissioned the band to commemorate the hundred years' anniversary with a performance work, which was also "recreated" in the studio.

The album starts off deceptively quiet, but the gradually increasing clattering of "Kriegsmaschinerie" is meant to be read along with a text that describes the slow buildup that leads to war. This first track already proves that this is an album that requires more than just listening: the accompanying liner notes of the physical editions are essential. (The additional descriptions found on the band's website are also quite helpful.) Many other songs greatly benefit from the additional contextual information.

Almost every song has a unique story. "Hymnen" is a mashup of several national hymns, proving that they really are fairly meaningless and interchangeable. "The Willy-Nicky Telegrams" is a surprisingly successful vocoder duet, with Blixa as Kaiser Wilhelm II (left channel) and Alexander Hacke as Tsar Nicholas II (right channel). The two were cousins through marriage and exchanged friendly telegraphs even as they were mobilizing their armies. "Der 1. Weltkrieg" is a statistical composition, representing the individual nations at war with individual percussion instruments played for the duration of their participation. Two songs are minimalist, eerie adaptations of obscure Flemish poems about the mundanity of the soldier's life, and another two are basically covers of marching band tunes from the Harlem Hellfighter's military band. ("On Patrol in No Man's Land" even features lead vocals from Hacke!)

The centerpiece is a trilogy under the title of "Lament". It starts with an almost ambient piece of multi-layered vocals that builds up to the phrase, "die Mächtigen lieben den Krieg" ("the powerful love war"). This is followed by a downward spiral and then an adaptation of a Renaissance motet written by a composer that lived in Diksmuide. The latter is accompanied by the voices of various prisoners of war who were recorded by German linguists to document the wide variety of dialects and languages throughout Europe. It's a tricky matter to handle, but Neubauten treat it with the respect it deserves.

The last part of the album changes track a bit. "How Did I Die?" is an original composition that fits into the Neubauten canon well enough that it could have appeared on past albums without seeming out of place. "Sag mir wo die Blumen sind" ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") is a Pete Seeger song from the 1950s, translated into German and performed widely by Marlene Dietrich. The band's version is a rather minimal arrangement, but it's great to hear them take on the folk standard so successfully. "Der Beginn der Weltkrieges 1914" is a dramatic reading of a short story from 1926 telling of the onset of World War I from the perspective of various animals. It's a rather long track, and perhaps the one with the least relistening value, but it is particularly notable for ending with the appearance of Hitler!

While Neubauten have worked in theatre and have composed soundtracks before, this album is special for being a unique production with its own narrative and structure, but incorporating a wide variety of other sources. While an album so full of adaptations and covers is certainly an unusual step for the band, it seems to have rejuvenated the band and restored them to their creative best. The fact that it comes off so well in terms of content and sound makes it a resounding success. Considering how wonderful some of Neubauten's older cover versions are (Lee Hazelwood's "Sand" and Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew"), I wonder if Neubauten have an underappreciated talent for rearrangement and recontextualization.

Score: A

P.S. The one flaw of the album is that several sections of the liner notes are plagiarized straight from Wikipedia without credit. For example, the bit on the Harlem Hellfighters is copied from here, and the section on "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is copied from here. The description of Joseph Plaut is clearly translated directly from his German article. Considering that the band supposedly hired two historians to help with their research, and Hartmut Fischer is credited with "literary research and text compilation", I would've expected someone to have treated that matter correctly.

P.P.S. Also, on "Achterland", Hacke is credited with performing "amplified crotches". This is clearly a typo and should read "amplified crutches", but I was slightly disgusted and humorously confused until I realized the error.

Friday, December 4, 2015

On Losslessness

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of audio file formats and online distribution thereof. There seems to be a growing camp of people demanding lossless digital download options, but also a camp that claims that decent lossy compression is good enough for most people. Although I'm decidedly in the former camp, I would like to more thoroughly explore what the actual differences are between lossless and lossy compression.

Plenty of people have tried to determine if the differences are easy to hear. Generally, these analyses fall into two camps. The more populist surveys usually barely show a favorable outcome for the ability of an average listener to correctly identify a lossless file versus a lossy version. (See, for example, here.) The more specialized, audiophile studies fare somewhat better, although the specifics vary widely. Some people claim to be able to discern the difference with no difficulty, but these people tend to have high-end hardware and trained ears. (See, for example, here or here.) Most people can barely hear the difference, and it would seem even that requires more concentration and effort than is usually afforded during casual listening.

However easy it may or may not be to hear the difference, I am nonetheless interested in what exactly that difference is. The effectiveness of flac (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) in reducing file sizes to about half or two-thirds of uncompressed wav files should prove that some amount of lossless compression is possible simply by eliminating redundant data. Lossy compression also removes redundancies, but by definition also removes actual audio content to further reduce file size. The most obvious elimination is any frequency over 16 kHz, since many people cannot hear frequencies above that point, or cannot hear them well. Even I top out somewhere between 17 and 18 kHz.

After that, though, exactly what gets cut is not necessarily easy to describe. Fundamentally, information that is considered inessential is removed by the algorithm. However, some of this information may be detectable in its absence by careful inspection. To this end, I did some internet searching and found a few articles and discussions that address some common trends. Here are some of the conclusions I've come across:

1. Transients (e.g. snare hits) suffer. They get blurred, lose their sharpness, and may even acquire pre-echo. All forms of percussion can lose some of their natural punch. Such quick bursts of information are often too short for the codec's processing frame size and they get blurred across the frame.
2. Vocals lose focus and clarity. Our ears are particularly sensitive to the human voice and can detect seemingly subtle changes.
3. Cymbals and applause get distorted and rough. This is because high-entropy (i.e. "random" or rapidly changing) information changes too fast for the codec. This can sometimes also materialize as ringing or warbling.
4. Bass instruments get muddier. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths, which can be longer than the codec's processing frame size, and thus do not get represented accurately.
5. Stereo separation and phase become distorted. Some of this is due to M/S (mid/sides) stereo mode, which instead of storing left and right, tries to reduce information redundancy by only storing the center (shared) and side (differences).
6. Dynamic loss and EQ loss is somewhat inevitable. Some sounds may get attenuated more than others, and the others may thus seem louder.
7. Noise (general murkiness, an underwater feeling, hiss, etc.) sometimes creeps in where previously there was desirable content.
8. Lossy compression can simply make things sound different, even if not necessarily worse. However, any deviation from the intentions of the artists and producers can reasonably be considered undesirable.
9. Lower-fidelity source material may actually suffer even worse, as whatever noise and other flaws exist in the uncompressed original may become exaggerated.
10. Genre, style, and the nature of the audio in question matter. Some types of music seem to compress better than others. Any reasonable audio comparison test should use a variety of types of music or audio.

There are, of course, a couple other factors to consider, such as the differences in acquiring and storing lossless and lossy audio. Hard drives are constantly getting cheaper and bigger, so the cost of storing lossless audio is a fairly marginal issue anymore. Acquiring the audio is another matter, although the difference there is also no longer as vast as it once was. New CDs are still only slightly more expensive than most mp3 stores, and used CDs are almost always cheaper. (The rip-and-resell approach has detractors but has been thus far legally unquestioned, at least in the USA.) Lossless online retailers are generally just about as expensive as mp3 stores, or at worst slightly more expensive than mp3s but still less than CDs. Hence, cost of acquisition is hardly a dealbreaker.

The real problem in acquisition is still that of availability. Lossless online retailers, while ever increasing in number and in content, still do not represent anything near all of the world's available music. It can be a pain to track this stuff down if it doesn't have the right type of following or industry support. There are a few significant websites (such as Bandcamp) and many individual indie labels (Sub Pop, Merge, etc.) and bands (speaking from experience: Ride, The Church, Wilco, and others) that offer lossless downloads, but many artists are still hard to track down.

This is also confused by the proliferation of HD retailers, which offer even higher sample rates and bitrates, despite that most people do not have the equipment to take advantage of the additional audio content. This wouldn't be a problem except that HD files are several factors larger and usually more expensive than any other digital format. (Only vinyl competes at that price range, and that's yet another story for another time.)

For me, lossless is the answer. While the quality advantage of lossless music may not be vast, the matters of file size and cost are less significant to me. The difficulty of acquiring lossless audio can still be a challenge, but it seems to be getting easier with time, and I am not opposed to CDs. In fact, if there is one issue that still gets me about most digital music downloads, it's the lack of album art. This is a big deal to me, and in fact was one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog. Sometimes this can be found on discogs or other sites, but finding it in decent resolution is usually tough. If that hurdle can be crossed, then lossless digital downloads should clearly be considered the standard.

References:

P.S. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider "lossless" to mean redbook audio CD quality, i.e. 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. HD audio is entirely other discussion with its own contentions, such as whether most listeners actually benefit from it, whether listeners can distinguish it, and whether the online retail options are any good. I do not have solid opinions of my own on these matters (yet).