Album Review: Ulrich Schnauss – A Long Way To Fall

[Scripted Realities / Domino USA; 2013]

The notion of “shoegaze electronic music” seems hopelessly arbitrary. If, as Wikipedia puts it, shoegaze is “typified by significant use of guitar effects, and indistinguishable vocal melodies that blend into the creative noise of the guitars,” then how can an album that contains neither vocals nor guitars be classified as such?

The answer lies in the nomenclature. The genre got its name because “the musicians in these bands stood relatively still during live performances in a detached, introspective, non-confrontational state, hence the idea that they were gazing at their shoes.” “Detached, introspective, non-confrontational” is a perfect way to describe the latest release by the German ambient IDM producer, Ulrich Schnauss. Unobtrusive yet lively drumbeats, smooth and twinkling synths, a seeming layer of gauze that gives the music a hazy sheen: A Long Way To Fall is peculiarly accessible and unabashedly pretty. Like Lone’s Galaxy Garden from last year, this alum owes as much to the lush electronica of 90s Warp as it does to trip-hop and new age, what with its skittering rhythms and vintage leads and pads (the latter no more evident than on “Like a Ghost in Your Own Life,” which comes across as Schnauss’s ode to Music Has The Right To Children).

While none of the melodies here are as heartbreaking (or as catchy) as those on Schnauss’s previous efforts (e.g. “Blumenthal”), Schnauss has retained his ear for an especially nostalgic tunefulness that makes for easy listening. Of course, “easy listening” has a negative connotation for a reason, and therein lies this record’s greatest fault: it’s too smooth, too ephemeral, never quite offering the listener enough to remember. The album seems to progress in a pleasant, sedated state, resolutely unhurried (only one of these tracks runs for less than five minutes) yet not interesting enough to justify its length. The title track is a good example of this. Sure, it sounds very nice, but with a six-minute run time it ought to develop or transform or do something besides riding its quiet groove. But it doesn’t; like a midday fog, it arrives and settles and then just hangs around until it tenderly dissipates. I lied before–there are vocals here, towards the end of the track, whispering and low in the mix. The vocals too are lovely; the whole thing is indeed quite lovely in a sterile, still-life-hanging-in-the-waiting-room kind of way. It’s a good song to do housecleaning to.

A Long Way To Fall is by no means a bad album, but I have to ask myself: why would I elect to listen to this instead of Schnauss’s earlier and better two efforts? What does this new work have to offer that’s new, that justifies the time investment it asks of the listener? Neither cold enough to make a disquieting impression nor warm enough to connect with the listener the way the artist’s own A Strangely Isolated Place or, hell, Amber did. Here’s an album that doesn’t ask much from the listener at all but still manages to sound insufficient. Even the chugging “I Take Comfort in Your Ignorance,” which at least ups the tempo a little bit, ultimately seems tepid and inert, just like those shoegazing live performers.  “A Forgotten Birthday” is nice though; you’ll want to make sure your vacuum is off before it comes on, so that you don’t miss anything.