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Ulrich Schnauss
A Strangely Isolated Place

Take a close look at your record collection. Like me, you probably own dozens of albums with only one or two good songs, mediocre discs you can't bear to sell because of a catchy college radio hit, or that earnest curiosity your friend played you one night during that perfect two-beer haze before a party, full of excitement. Maybe it's even something you came across in your file-sharing exploits. You're probably afraid you'll never find these records again, and as I approach thirty, that's been the rationale for a lot of questionable hoarding on my part. In short, I will not be selling A Strangely Isolated Place.

Ulrich Schnauss isn't a revolutionary artist. Like Guitar's Peter Grove, he's operating in a software-driven world of loops, and not the least bit concerned about hiding his influences. Though he dotes on everyone from Orbital (unintentional "Belfast" bells rise from the multi-track din that closes "Gone Forever") to OMD ("In All the Wrong Place" begins as a sort of minimalist tribute to "Enola Gay"), he is most obviously obsessed with Slowdive. Listening to his second album, A Strangely Isolated Place, I can only assume Morr's Blue Skied An' Clear tribute to those shoegazers was his idea.

Slowdive's Neil Halstead was a similarly indebted artist. A protégé of the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, Halstead stretched his predecessor's glistening, reverbed delay to such ephemeral lengths that many early Slowdive songs bordered on precious goth (as did many of their fans). As the band disintegrated, dismissed in the press as students, chaos fueled a masterstroke: 1995's airy, weightless Pygmalion is one of the best of the decade, predicting the ambience that's dominated the independent landscape ever since. Ulrich Schnauss takes cues from "Crazy for You", but more specifically builds from the cathedral electronic tracks appended to the U.S. issue of 1993's Souvlaki (in an odd, backwards moment, this widely available American disc is something of a collector's item abroad-- check out the fold-out poster!).

"A Letter from Home" runs in the fields of Halstead's delay, playing like a ferris wheel ride over teenage abandon abandoned, a slow-motion replay of all the moments you'll never get back. But its aching nostalgia is still too mid-90s danceable-- imagine a hollowed-out taken on Chapterhouse's "Pearl"-- to become oppressively morbid or referential. Schnauss loves the melancholy sound of echoing guitar, but he can't find anything to bleat about, resolutely celebrating the simple joys of life, like faraway trains passing by.

Though "Gone Forever" and "Monday Paracetamol" are made up of instantly recognizable sounds, on closer listen, there's a uniqueness to the way Schnauss brings them together. Where Guitar melded Curve and My Bloody Valentine, so Schnauss plays with Orbital, Slowdive and pre-trip-hop dance beats, popularly abused by the likes of Jesus Jones. Distant vocal moans perfectly drift in and out of his punchy tracks, but his keyboards could use a few new tones. Most of the plastic keys produce sci-fi waves comparable to Vangelis, or the 90s technophilia of B-12's Trans Tourist. By the time of "Clear Day", it seems Schnauss is operating on a premium of equipment and ideas, as most of these tracks are interchangeably paced and compositionally slight.

As if to answer for this borderline monotony, Schnauss closes A Strangely Isolated Place with three wildly different pieces. The almost Spiritualized lament "Blumenthal" drips from plucked nylon strings and xylophone hammers, a proper trip-hop daydream that swells to a glorious walk in the clouds in its most coherent moments. "In All the Wrong Place" is even more daring, a µ-Ziq tribute that pays off, properly seating Mike Paradinas' dinky keyboards in a distorted drum-machine bed; I won't go as far as to say it's on par with "Roy Castle", but this is definitely a worthy inheritor to the µ-Ziq's electronica masterpiece In Pine Effect.

The title track closer isn't the best send-off-- Schnauss should definitely have closed the record with "In All the Wrong Place"-- but the title track does continue with the reverential Rephlex sounds that work best on this record. When the Halsteadian guitar comes in, it's almost a reminder of what Schnauss has already left behind, a sound with too few options, one he more than explores on the first half of this wonderfully breezy but repetitive full-length.

-Chris Ott, June 4th, 2003