Review: Bohren & der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue

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Let’s be honest with ourselves: we all take tolerance breaks from metal. Everything can’t be blastbeats (in death metal and otherwise) all the time, and on occasion even the trvest, dyed-in-the-wool metalhead needs to step back and take in some different sounds.

But what is our ear-fatigued metalhead to do? Where is one to turn in this aural wilderness? Into this void steps Bohren & der Club of Gore.

I’ll cop to my ignorance of this German dark ambient/jazz trio, despite their nearly 30 year career, starting with their debut Gore Motel in 1994. Jazz in general has never been something I’ve found myself drawn to on its own, as opposed to spliced with rock, funk, or metal elements. Ambient music, dark or otherwise, is similarly outside of my everyday experience. I’m here to eat crow. Patchouli Blue is a completely unique listening experience, one that I didn’t know I was missing in my life until I heard it.

B&dCoG retains a relatively traditional jazz format—drums, bass, electric piano, saxophone—but don’t hew to what you might call “traditional” jazz songwriting and atmosphere. There is largely no concrete song structure. Instead, themes rise and fall from the murky depths, perhaps momentarily staying with a melodic theme but more often letting atmosphere take the driver’s seat. Only rarely have I found ambient music this consistently interesting or compelling.

It wasn’t shocking to find that B&dCoG is signed to Ipecac Recordings, as this is music that practically screams for Mike Patton vocals. The band must agree with my assessment, as evidently they released a collaboration with him in 2011. Although Patchouli Blue doesn’t really suffer for lack of vocals, the more human element could have provided an effective contrast to the band’s cool, emotionally distant presentation.

Of particular note here is the saxophone work of Christoph Clöser. His playing is far from technical, and if you were to look at a score for the album you wouldn’t necessarily be impressed by his parts. On record, that all changes. Backed by painfully pristine production, Clöser’s control and phrasing come shockingly close to perfect. His playing on the album is easily in the running for the best sax recording I’ve ever heard.

If I have a complaint with the album, it’s that the tracks are a little too consistent—once you’ve listened to opener “Total Falsch,” you know exactly what you’ll be getting for the remaining hour or so. A few judicious edits could have sharpened the album’s impact, reducing Patchouli Blue‘s tendency toward sprawl. As things stand, it’s the minor touches that let the songs stand out: a vibraphone solo here, a tremolo and reverb-heavy electric guitar theme reminiscent of Billy Strange there. Otherwise, all eleven songs are an exercise in controlled tension, hiding ominous tones beneath what might otherwise be considered upbeat instrumentation.

It’s hard not to find yourself drawn into the world these songs create. Nothing is rushed; every beat, every Rhodes piano chord, every sax line is placed so deliberately that it would all seem to fall apart if any element were removed. B&dCoG combines their melodies and soundscapes with perfect clarity, subtly undercut by an inescapable malice.

Listen to the album as I did, on headphones while walking around the city at night. You’ll find yourself entranced and unable to shake the feeling that someone is following you, just out of sight.

4 out ov 5 Jazzy, Flamin’ Toilets

Patchouli Blue by Bohren & der Club of Gore is out on Ipecac Recordings on January 24, 2020. You can pick up a copy through Ipecac’s Blixt Merch page.

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