Album Review: The Notwist – Vertigo Days

[Morr Music; 2021]

On an alternate timeline, Germany’s The Notwist were the next Radiohead. By the early 2000s, they’d swung a gradual one-eighty from their hardcore punk beginnings and ended up somewhere in the experimental-electronic pool that Radiohead helped expand and popularize in the same period. If you were to try to find parallels to their discography, their renaissance started with Shrink – the underappreciated classic from 1998 – which would be their OK Computer – and following that was 2002’s high watermark Neon Golden, which would be their Kid A.

This comparison, while being unfair to both, also makes The Notwist’s last proper album, 2014’s Close to the Glass, their King of Limbs – a good album that couldn’t help but fail to live up to the expectations set by the previous work. Littered with more intensity than what we’d come to expect from them, Close to the Glass was dismissed largely for being too retrograde. Seven years removed from that album and The Notwist have returned with their best work since Neon Golden, materialized in the aptly titled Vertigo Days.

It wasn’t an easy journey for The Notwist to release Vertigo Days. Along the way they lost their lead programmer Martin Gretschmann (now replaced by Cico Beck), who had joined the band prior to Shrink and the 2015 instrumental compilation pitstop The Messier Objects was poorly received – although it gave a worthwhile peek into the thought process the group had been going through over the years. These factors have coalesced into the final product of Vertigo Days – an album that pushes The Notwist even further down the rabbit hole of experimentation, but manages to rein it all in by the finish. It’s less dense than Close to the Glass and gives the new trio a gorgeous canvas to stroke wild flourishes across.

Following the introductory “Al Norte”, “Into Love / Stars” acts as the proper start to Vertigo Days and it’s right in line with what we’ve come to expect from The Notwist – a soft introduction from Markus Acher that breathes in sparkling notes, immediately re-igniting the the realisation that this band knows how to write compelling hooks very well. The bridge comes courtesy of Neon Golden-era vibes that never grow old, and it builds wonderfully into “Exit Strategy to Myself” via tribal drumming loops. This stylish sequencing makes it apparent that The Notwist have catapulted their sound into new territory by creating Vertigo Days as a large suite of tracks that are all acutely woven together.

The band isn’t content to just rely on themselves to create this new world – they’ve brought along unique voices and instrumentation to help elaborate their thoughts. The guestlist is impressive – jazz wonder woman Angel Bat Dawid shines on her assist centerpiece “Into the Ice Age” and Juana Molina replenishes the erratic on “Al Sur”. The radical left-turn on “Ship” reprises the rhythm section’s succinct talents while giving Markus Acher a chance to harmonize with guest vocalist Saya of Japanese indie pop duo Tenniscoats. Not every addition hits the mark though; the modest vocal contribution from Ben LaMar Gay on “Oh Sweet Fire” just feels slightly out of place with the album’s stylistic essence at times, despite being one of the more unique lyrical entries on the album with some poignant commentary, “I march with my love / Yeah, we chant and we roar / The sounds of drums reflecting off buildings / As high as the fist that has risen.”

Despite these guest turns, Vertigo Days is all about the The Notwist rediscovering their innovative niche. Those expecting a retread of Neon Golden might be surprised this has more in common with Shrink. The percussion is looser and more unpredictable than Neon Golden, but not as ambient or strained as it was on the often-forgotten follow-up The Devil, You + Me. This isn’t a massive departure for the band either, but it does show a group attempting to really inject some surrealism to their work.

While there’s plenty of unpredictable moments on Vertigo Days, The Notwist haven’t abandoned the sound they are known for and have assembled the record to be the best of both worlds. “Loose Ends” has a delightfully swirling and dreamy riff to accompany its feather-like presence. “Sans Soleil” feels like classic Notwist, with fluttering wind instruments that never sublet the charmingly elegant and simple chorus “No more runaway from now / No more runaway from here.”

The finale of Vertigo Days breaks the norm set by the band for over two decades now. Penultimate track “Al Sur” dispenses with the traditional ambient outros and gives us Argentinian folktronica maestro Juana Molina leading the band into some world music tendencies – a goal the band set out for this go-round. The rotation around the sun is completed with “Into Love Again”, a reworking of the beginning of the album with fewer synths and more tribal drumming and angelic backgrounds.

While Vertigo Days boasts a heap of guest musicians, none ever outshine The Notwist, something that can often happen on guest-heavy albums. Instead, this cast of characters from around the world does wonders for their sound and makes for an intriguing and rewarding listen every time.