Various Artists: A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land

This 2CD compilation presents an overview of the music of two linked German labels, No Man’s Land and Review Records. Formed in the early 80s by Juergen Koeniger and Edith Walz, and operated since 1997 by Gerhard Busse, the labels have amassed a large body of work across a number of genres from free improv to dark ambient, noisy rock and experimental songcraft. The compilation is sensibly organised by genre, with the first disc concentrating on instrumental music and the second on songs. It’s generously compiled, too – every track is previously unreleased.

The pieces on disc one are predominantly American and German in origin. David Weinstein opens the batting with ‘The Economist,’ a rather approximate mix of clunky effects, mid-tempo beats and bloopy analogue synths. Weinstein writes in the sleevenotes that the piece was made “using a variety of computers, keyboards, software and hardware both old and broken and new and confusing,” and frankly the confusion shows. Things soon pick up, however, with the rich classical sonorities of Guy Klucevsek’s ‘Glow/Hearth’ and the distressed atmospherics of Dawn’s ‘Shining.’ Inspired by Kubrick’s film of the same name, the latter is the undoubted highlight of disc one – a bewitching fusion of sinister crackles, resonant bell chimes and faint traces of a female voice.

Elsewhere, there are two vaguely ‘world’ influenced pieces featuring Werner Durand, who makes his own wind instruments out of PVC. The essential pointlessness of this activity is underscored by the pieces themselves, which meander pleasantly enough through thickets of digital delay without ever truly holding the attention. More engaging by far are two tracks by clarinettist Michael Lytle – the first an ear-splitting blast of improv, the second a loose and searching arc of freeform blowing.

Disc two is more diverse geographically, although equally variable in quality. Estonian rocker Leonid Soybelman is represented twice, once under his own name and once under that of his band Ne Zhdali. His songs recall the driven, angular moves of Wire with an irrepressible sense of fun attached. They enable one to overlook the mediocre, guitar-based funk workout by Ich Schwitze Nie that opens the disc, and the ludicrous cod-cabaret outpourings of Chris Newman that close it.

Between these dubious bookends sit a number of intriguing moments, notably Non Credo’s chilling ‘Latex Heart,’ in which singer Kira Vollman delivers a passionate invocation of obsessive desire against a backdrop of churning bass and drums. From a completely different but no less interesting angle, former Ruins member and multi-instrumentalist Tatsuya Yoshida sings (in an invented language) and also essays a range of prog rock manoeuvres from chiming electric guitar and intricate percussion to galloping keyboards that happily (for this listener, at least) recall the glories of early 70s Genesis. Other highlights include Francois Ribac and Eva Schwabe’s lovely piano ballad, ‘Die Dolomiten,’ Peter Cusack and Viv Corringham’s seductive arrangement of a traditional Greek folk song, and Frank Schulte’s inventive electronic setting of Anna Homler’s precise vocalisations.

No compilation can hope to please everyone, but this one has an impressively high strike rate and gives a good sense of the range of approaches adopted by the artists in the No Man’s Land stable. An excellent booklet with detailed and comprehensive notes on each artist rounds out the package.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 13, 2005)

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