If the strongest points on 2003’s A Strangely Isolated Place were also the brightest, Ulrich Schnauss’s 2007 Goodbye worked best when it twisted away from its own predominating light. On A Long Way To Fall, the German producer’s fourth album under his own name, Schnauss embraces shadow play, teasing out moments of darkness and discomfort to accentuate an ultimately optimistic narrative.
After two records brimming with effects borrowed from first-wave shoegaze, Schnauss took the opportunity on A Long Way to Fall to create what he describes as “an album that would celebrate the synthesizer as the very capable musical instrument that it is, but without the need to disguise it behind a wall of echo and reverb.” While the release doesn’t excise all of the gauze that’s characterized Schnauss’s music for the past decade, the synths do cut forth with more robust analog tones. The air clears, allowing us to hear each track not as a uniform wall of sound but as a sequence of discrete moving parts.
Even early in his career, surface comparisons between Schnauss’s work and its IDM contemporaries softened at the consideration of deep tonal discrepancies. At his most sparse, Schnauss couldn’t match the surreality of artists like Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Proem. The nihilistic blitzkrieg of late ’90s electronica never stained the dreamy, humanistic underpinnings of Schnauss’ shoegaze-inflected impressionism. In 2003, hearing an electronica LP shine with all the luster of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless pushed the edges of the genre up to a fruitful hybridity. In 2007, Schnauss’ mild brand of “Slowdive with extra synths” paled against M83’s tauter, more forward-thinking electro-gaze.
While M83 has since swerved closer to Europop, Schnauss reached back into his IDM roots for his first solo release in six years. A Long Way To Fall might fill enough of its own air with passages that could be seamlessly swapped out with the less memorable moments on A Strangely Isolated Place, but it also dips into some darker wells than we’re used to hearing in Schnauss’ fusion electronica. Several tracks grow around hard, dark cores; ”I Take Comfort In Your Ignorance” and ”The Weight of Darkening Skies” adorn grinding dance bass lines with signature Schnauss trinkets, while “Broken Homes” weaves unearthly vocal samples between blasts of blistering synths and death-toll chimes.
From a glance at the track list alone, it seems Schnauss has taken critiques of his own lightness to heart. “The Weight of Darkening Skies” contrasts sharply with 2003’s “Clear Day”, while “A Ritual in Time and Death” almost stretches into post-industrial navel-gazing. The music itself breeds some of the darkness that Schnauss’ previous work did its best to obliterate, but no matter how hard it meditates on death, the record can’t shake its own optimism. Schnauss still favors textures that sparkle and shine, and melodies that comfort more than they unnerve.
Like much of Schnauss’ work, A Long Way To Fall is best at its most violent. The album’s midpoint ”A Forgotten Birthday” strikes an engaging contrast of harsh beats and mournful pads, letting its own patterns surge and multiply toward a hopeful conclusion. Closer “A Ritual of Time and Death” distinguishes itself for its tight evolution of industrial beats and trance arpeggios. At times, as on “Like A Ghost In Your Own Life”, Schnauss steeps too long in the sort of aqueous glitter that spilled over into much of Goodbye. But the majority of the record feels as though it’s finally striking at something deeper than vague reassurance. It feels at last like we know what we’re being reassured of.
After two successful collaborations in 2012, it’s good to hear Schnauss reign in the shine on his own work. While the more sprawling A Long Way To Fall might not hold up to the pithy compositions on the 77 EP with ASC, fans of Schnauss’ intersectional niche will only find more to love on the record. By honing in on sharper song structures instead of billowing vocals and effects, Schnauss has cut past Goodbye‘s indulgences into a maturation of his unmistakable electronic streak.
Essential Tracks: “A Forgotten Birthday”, “I Take Comfort In Your Ignorance”