January 9, 2009

Hear Again: Belief.

Nitzer Ebb's second album, released twenty years ago today, opens with the funky strut of Hearts and Minds, heralding a shift toward more intricate arrangements and rhythms. Although a track like Blood Money could easily fit on the band's previous album, the majority of music on Belief – still minimal in execution – cleverly layers motifs interspersed with brief pauses, creating cohesive pieces by exploiting the human auditory system's appetite for order "adding" notes were there aren't any.

The arrangements are enhanced by an elaborate process of sound generation and programming, the foundation of the band's signature sound, patching the original sound generator through a secondary device (often a large modular synthesiser), utilising its filters to add depth, then feeding the resulting sound through a third device (like a
vocoder) and applying its envelope shaping capabilities. The production of Mark "Flood" Ellis provides a crisp, clear mix to what could've easily been – what with the numerous parts and tricky sounds – a rather muddled affair.

The accompanying singles are well worth tracking down for their alternative takes on the album’s tracks, displaying more of Flood’s skills, as well as the contributions of William "Orbit" Wainwright, whose re-versions of Shame, Captivate, and Backlash (the last one a single track not included on the album) earned him an invitation to work alongside Kraftwerk a couple of years later. Many of these alternative mixes remain staples at more discerning dance clubs.

Musically, Belief moves beyond the electronic punk, pioneered by bands like Silver Apples, Suicide and Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, that inspired Nitzer Ebb, towards a kind of funky, electronic blues – with tracks like Captivate and Backlash in particular suggesting what Jagger and Richards could've sounded like had they kept their modular Moog back in '68, sacked the rest of the band, and applied themselves at mastering the electronic beast.

Thematically, the album deals with belief not merely in a religious sense, but all manner of faith in the trustworthiness of ideas or persons. Bellowed less than in the past, the vocals remain closer to sloganeering than lyricism, though tracks like
Control I'm Here – about the benefit of keeping one’s mouth shut – hint at the latter gradually taking over. It briefly touches upon reality in T.W.A, seemingly a comment on the hijacking of
TWA Flight 847, and similar acts where conscience is blunted by beliefs.

Fitting this stark slice of minimal electronic dance music, the artwork is based on Suprematist Kazimierz Malewicz's
Black Square, the title superimposed on either a black square on white ground, or hovering over a black void. More intriguingly, the anonymous section of a face gazing at the listeners appears to be appropriated from a self-portrait of the Dadaist Max Ernst, which would explain his (posthumous) mention in the sleeve credits. Casting Ernst as Big Brother seems rather appropriate, given that when asked about his favourite pastime as a child he purportedly answered "Seeing".

Despite the stark packaging and contents, Nitzer Ebb could hardly be dubbed a dour bunch, their humour surfacing in
Without Belief, as well as in the modified legalese that accompanied their recordings at the time, informing the listener that public performance etc. is "prohibited unless suitable incentives are offered", and that the records themselves were manufactured in "so called" Great Britain. Clearly these Chelmsford lads had little faith in the
grocer's daughter minding the shop.

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