I started collecting music when I was really tiny, probably early elementary school. I started by “borrowing” cassette tapes from my parents, and after my dad showed me how to use our stereo to record music from the radio, I started making my own tapes. I have to say that for an 8 year-old, I had a very impressive collection of R.E.M. mixes and random Australian music -- pop rock, aboriginal, you name it. Eventually, I caught up with the times and moved on to CDs. When I was in high school, I could usually be found after class or during lunch at the Virgin Record store in Union Square looking for new music.
It’s hard to believe that the store is now gone -- along with Tower Records, Other Music, and countless others -- and I can still picture every aisle of Virgin perfectly. Most of my time was spent in the rock and electronic sections, and whereas I was pretty deliberate with my rock music choices (there was a lot of Snow Patrol), I was more adventurous with the electro stuff. Usually I went for albums with covers or titles that I liked, or mixes with a couple names that I recognized. That’s how I discovered German electronic musician Ulrich Schnauss.
I saw the cover of Far Away Trains Passing By, then read the name, and then bought the album. That album kicked-off what has been a love of ambient and synth music that introduced me to other groups, including Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Nils Frahm, and Air.
Far Away Trains is Schnauss’s first album, and by far my favorite. It’s filled with playful, flighty notes underscored by deep drum beats and bouts of foreboding. Close your eyes and drift back and forth to “Between Us And Them” and “As If You’ve Never Been Away.” They build and swell, but never reach the “burst” that many conventional techno tracks do, making the songs oddly addicting because you keep waiting for a moment that never happens. Occasionally that moment does happen in Schnauss’s music, like the shift halfway through “Suddenly The Trees Are Giving Way,” which is totally beautiful. (I've always wondered if the Verve's “Bittersweet Symphony” took some inspiration from it.)
“Blumenweise Neben Autobahn” is my most played song on the album. It tentatively creeps through pops of ambient melancholy and then suddenly finds hope in a delicately playful club beat. The song always makes me think of a long car or motorcycle ride along a never-ending mountain ridge. Bliss.
Most of Far Away Trains is voiceless, and what always struck me about the album is Schanuss’s ability to create stories in his music -- or at least initiate ones in your head to accompany the music -- without uttering a word. His subsequent albums play with vocal components, and the song “Goodbye” on the eponymously named album succeeds as a synthpop piece that I can see ending a movie.
Far Away Trains will probably always be my favorite album, though I’m eager to see where Schnauss and his music move next. He’s been criticized by some reviewers for not evolving past shoegaze tracks that bleed into each other. Frankly this doesn’t bother me: I love electro albums where it’s hard to tell when one song begins and another ends (Elaenia by Floating Points and Eating Us by Black Moth Super Rainbow might be other examples). But I admit that some of his later albums haven’t struck as much of a chord with me, and I’m wondering if his contribution to Decca’s upcoming Re:works (out on July 15) signals a new direction for Schnuass, or perhaps a new album.
Can you dance to Ulrich Schnauss? Maybe. I saw him live a few years ago at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and I did more swaying than actual dancing. But like his songs that don’t give you the cheesy “drop,” it’s kind of satisfying to slowly bounce along, always a few notes away from an actual, crazy release. All of that said, I hope to see him perform live again, and perhaps there will be some dancing.
P.S. A pretty cool studio interview with Schnauss from Resident Advisor.