Within a ten year period, Alter der Ruine have released five albums, various EPs, remixes, unleashed a inescapable dancefloor anthem, split up, reformed, and drastically changed their style – without apparently alienating their fanbase along the way. This doesn’t sound like a too difficult thing to do, until you look a little closer at exactly how the band have changed.
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And they’ve changed a lot. First release The Ruine Process was an industrial noise album, that had great rhythms and punched pretty hard, while State of Ruin allowed a little more light and shade into the mix, and introduced vocals on the title track (as well the stellar A23 remix of it). This was where their first major direction change was made, as The Giants From Far Away was something of an epic bait and switch. The build-up to release suggested an album of deep seriousness, of epic scope…and the reality was a sometimes-goofy, frequently brilliant electronic album that toned down the noise, emphasising the grooves and a deft hand with clever, funny samples. It also, of course, unleashed dancefloor monster Relax and Ride It, that if the band didn’t look like having so much fun with it live, I’d suggest was something of an albatross for the band.
My interview (linked above) with Mike Treveloni was in the aftermath of Giants…, and it became clear in the time after that perhaps weren’t so great for the band. One planned album split into two, suggesting a glut of material, and it seemed something of a step away from the goofy fun of the previous year or two, and indeed the style changed again. Introspective, darker electronics took to the fore (the internal monologue vocals of I Am Drugs perhaps suggested just how bad things had got), culminating though in one of the band’s greatest songs, the four-minute synthpop glory of Ghosts, taking on issues with booze in style, with sharp wit in the lyrics and a making a better stab at synthpop than many self-proclaimed synthpop bands have ever done.
It was, perhaps, no great surprise when Alter der Ruine announced their cessation in early 2012, but the widespread love of the band proclaimed after that by many perhaps had a hand in the band reconvening a year or so later (it also meant I finally got to see them live, too, at their anarchic, brilliant show at Resistanz in spring 2013), with a comment that the ADR to come would be radically different. They weren’t wrong.
The first peek at the new ADR came with Lights, which was released onto the internet early into this year, and confirms the changes the band had mooted. This is elegant, downbeat stuff – no funny samples, no heavy beats – with a languid feel that seems perfectly appropriate for the warm summer that we’re experiencing here in London at present.
The direction I had from the band when I received the promo access to the album, by the way, was to treat the album as a whole piece – in other words, to listen right through – and I’m going to cover it in that way. We head next into Tiny Wars and Quiet Storms, that is similarly downbeat in tone but has a quietly wonderful chorus that features Mike T.’s best vocal performance yet – the song wouldn’t be half as affecting as it is without it. Horizon Slide picks up the tempo somewhat, and is perhaps the closest link to material from the “Son of A Bitch” era, having similar rolling rhythms and feel.
Stars strikes as an interlude, rather than a full track, barely getting going as the pretty piano work and reverbed drums peter out, and it seems a waste – it ends far too soon. Especially as the quasi-funk electro of Gift Horse sits a little oddly with the vocals to start with, before shedding the straitjacket to unleash another glorious chorus. It could then be argued that Will We Tear You Apart is the most mainstream electro track here, a more upbeat feel, a near-summery sound, and a ton of hooks – but even that is eclipsed by what follows
Plainly and simply, ADR have saved the best material on this album for the closing run. The first six songs pretty much exist to lead up to them, and the first of these simply brilliant songs is Quiet Crimes. A simple beat and Mike T’s vocal get more and more layers of electronics to bolster them, before an urgent chorus with hooks like talons gets into your head (take one listen to this song and see how long it takes to rid the refrain from your memory. It’ll take a while), and those synths. A mournful, elegant song.
I’ve already made Tundra track of the month earlier this year, and this is still as brilliant on the tenth or twentieth listen. What sounds like live drums (as opposed to the programmed drums that the band usually use) provides a steely backbone to twinkling electronics, minor key melodies and the sad, sad vocals that make the song as lonely-sounding as the titular location. This and Quiet Crimes before it make the following Poltergeist all the more surprising – the one time the band really kick up the tempo on the album, and it’s marvellous. There are glitchy bass drops, a surging beat, and more vocal melodies that are simply great. The closing Leviathan buries the vocals rather, and again almost returning to the ADR of old, with beats that remind of what they were, but with a far darker edge than before.
This darker edge is one of the many things that make this album so affecting. The mood generally is sombre, but with the odd exception this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the brilliance of the music, which appears to be a culmination of almost everything Alter der Ruine have done so far. They’ve tried many styles over the past ten years, clearly learned a lot, gone through a lot in their lives, and come out the other side wiser and better. A fine addition to an already impressive body of work.