Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
VESSMIER

Schwarz Stein - Immortal Verses in Context

Recommended Posts

aRviiil.png

 

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 20 seconds. Contains 1669 words.

 

 

There was a time when a Schwarz Stein reunion would have been at the top of my music wish list. The late 2000s were drawing to an end and I was still very much immersed in their eschatological vision of digital decadence, a dream of liberation and redemption with the technopolitan paradise awaiting.

 

With their first two albums, 2003’s New vogue children and 2004’s Artificial Hallucination, Kaya and Hora established their very own, unique sound, not only as an electronic act in the visual kei space, but also within electronic music in general, fusing beat-driven, danceable EBM with tinges of trance, synthpop, industrial and chanson. Their conceptual and lyrical focus on themes and dualisms of oftentimes biblical proportions (entrapment vs. salvation, earthly dystopia vs. transcendent utopia, freedom vs. sin etc.) and allusions to hedonism and sexual liberation as an antidote to the paralysis of totalitarian social order give Schwarz Stein a distinct gothic edge which resounds in their music in an obvious yet elegant way. Accompanying even more upbeat tracks is an almost omnipresent melancholia, lingering in the timbre of reverberating keyboard strokes and gaining momentum in the lyrics and vocal delivery. Kaya’s singing voice has always struck me as exceptionally powerful yet composed, while retaining fragility, warmth as well as emotional depth and nuance throughout its entire range. He croons with such clarity and smoothness, his lower register seems more like the dark hues of a bright color while his midrange is forceful and voluminous, at times erupting into a subtle, wistful vibrato. Even his highs stand out to a certain degree – they sound youthful, open and bright while thinning out only in falsetto.

 

Similar to their sound and overall design philosophy as a band, Schwarz Stein’s visual aesthetic revolves around the juxtaposition of visceral darkness and playful sensuality. The foundation of their style is a mixture of BDSM fashion and gothic glitz, which in and of itself would be anything but revolutionary and was actually quite the cliché couture of early 2000s visual kei. But Schwarz Stein put a unique spin on their makeup, costumes, props and stage design by incorporating an iconography and visual aesthetic that is unmistakably inspired by H.R. Giger. On a superficial level, it might seem gimmicky. But Giger’s transhumanism actually translates in a very meaningful way into Schwarz Stein’s world, where the non-human part, the intrusive, dehumanizing element resounds not only in their musical concept as a purely digital act but also in themes like estrangement, solitude, corruption and slavery to an unfree system. Interestingly, this clear vision of their style had already been established during their Rudolf Steiner demo days and (unsurprisingly) became a little less prominent during their prime under music and fashion label owner Mana.

 

In 2006, two years after their initial disbandment and subsequent pursuit of solo careers, Kaya and Hora came out with a onetime collaborative session album titled another cell. While it was a solid release, especially for Kaya lending INNER UNIVERSE and FROZEN PAST his voice, it suffered from lower production value and a creeping disconnect in the duo’s collaboration; a first foreshadowing of what the future would hold.

 

When Recurrence of Hallucination dropped in celebration of Schwarz Stein’s 10th anniversary, the sense of foreboding left behind by another cell turned into sobering reality. Even though the 2011 mini-album was released under the Schwarz Stein name, it feels even more like an on the side cash grab. It consists of three slightly remixed and somehow less exciting versions of tracks from Hora’s solo work, one new, albeit sub-par composition and an instrumental intro, which ironically trumps the rest of the EP. The whole thing sounds anemic and detached. And I don’t even so much take issue with its shortcomings in the engineering and production department; the switch to Kaya’s label トロイメライ (Traumerei) surely came with budgetary constraints. It’s the blatant decline in songwriting and compositional quality and the obvious lack of effort put into the project I find so deeply disappointing that not even nostalgia suffices to compensate for it.

 

After their official reunion in 2014 and a handful of hit-and-miss singles, Schwarz Stein finally announced a proper new mini-album titled Immortal Verses and scheduled to release in September of 2018. The track list and cover art looked promising at first, calling to mind their trademark mix of gothic kitsch, dystopic gloom and stoic sensuality. In a lot of ways, however, Immortal Verses completely fails to correct course. In fact, it seems entirely ignorant of any shortcomings or failures in the first place and instead reiterates in an even more opportunistic way the exact creative principles which not only spoiled its predecessor but also threaten to water down their entire legacy.

 

The main problem boils down to the songwriting and composition. As a solo artist, Hora has always been frustratingly impervious to any kind of innovation when it comes to his sound. It wouldn’t even be much of an overstatement to say that he’s been making the same three songs for thirteen years now – there’s the abrasive industrial banger, the spacy club anthem and the ambient mood piece. Even his sound palette hardly changed in over a decade which makes his albums altogether feel like weary and unfocused attempts at amplifying the slowly fading echo of his accomplishments from times past.

 

Unfortunately, this is exactly what plagues Schwarz Stein’s post-reunion material. There’s very little in the way of original ideas. Instead, songwriting and composition seem to be largely governed by a self-referential process of copy & paste and an aggravating compulsion to check the same old boxes. It’s formulaic to the point of redundancy. Lotus is a prime example of that. It’s the mini-album’s thematic and narrative climax, the focal point of overall tension building and pacing. By virtue of its placement and function, it tries hard to be loud and spectacular, to emulate the abrasiveness and tonal density of their harsher, more industrial-oriented output. Nothing about it works though. Structurally, it is entirely predictable and musically, much too familiar. What should’ve been an homage, I assume, ends up as an awkward amalgamation of Schwarz Stein’s BIO GENESIS (2003) and Kaya’s Sodomy (2013, music written by Hora). The thumping beat, the ominous synth lines, the nervous, channel-hopping buzz of distorted guitar samples… it’s all there, ready to wreak havoc but the individual elements simply don’t add up to anything meaningful or enjoyable. Lotus misses the mark widely and by recycling old material so bluntly illustrates the duo’s petty refusal to be creative with disheartening clarity. And to add insult to injury, even Hora’s “death voice”, a simple yet somewhat iconic voice distortion effect (cf. CREEPER, 2004), is employed so ham-fistedly here, it degenerates into a meaningless, lackluster gimmick. In short, Lotus is Immortal Verses at its worst: derivative, unimaginative and overstated in all the wrong places.

 

Despite all that, however, there are a few redeeming moments and some genuinely sensible artistry to be found on the mini-album. The lyrics of Immortal Verses tell a short but moving tale of a lost love which has rendered the protagonist broken and immobilized, slowly withering away in deeply solitary, lifeless apathy. The memories both painfully elusive and relentlessly parasitic begin to haunt them in the form a faint, flickering light. The longing for what seems forever lost in time – love, happiness, the feeling of wholeness – is presented as an inescapable dilemma: it’s the sole raison d’être and ultimate martyrdom at the same time. The narrative unfolds over the course of all five tracks and adds a welcome element of cohesion which the music alone oftentimes fails to provide. In some cases, the lyrical themes of isolation, estrangement, solitude and yearning resonate quite beautifully with the instrumentation and vocals. morgue, for instance, does a decent job as an opener with its simmering organs setting a somber mood and the beat building tension in unison with dramatic synth strings. It’s neither loud nor overbearing but a patient moment of exposition, providing a well-rounded backdrop for Kaya’s equally subdued yet poignant vocal performance. Although he’s always been a competent vocalist, his voice sounds more refined and confident than ever. Even in otherwise unremarkable tracks like Immortal Light and Forest of Paralysis, he manages to break the relative flatness of the instrumental and add depth, a third dimension for emotion to resonate within and become tangible. Wachtraum is most noteworthy in that regard. In similar fashion to COCOON (2014), Kaya hums impressively clear, low notes during the verses which transition into an elegant, climactic hook. The tension that has been progressively built during the first three cuts and peaked in Lotus quietly dissolves in these last, satisfying moments of calm reflection and melancholy. And even though they don’t quite reach ethereal quality of tracks like transient (2003) or Emergence of Silence (2004), these quieter moments bring to light little bits and pieces of something I thought Schwarz Stein had lost for good: their identity.

 

I find it difficult to assess Immortal Verses in a broader, more general way that would be commensurate with a conclusion of this review. There’s one reason for that and it’s the sincerest bottom line I can produce. Immortal Verses is an extremely hermetic release – and deliberately so. Neither does it engage in any kind of dialogue with the tropes and trends of contemporary visual kei - be it stylistically or musically - nor does it build upon the duo’s established sound and innovate it. The mini-album’s entire artistic scope and purpose are wholly determined by its relationship to Schwarz Stein’s previous work. Immortal Verses is a sonic soliloquy, a nostalgic stroll down memory lane and as such it explicitly and exclusively caters to a very specific audience: Schwarz Stein’s most devoted, longtime fans. In a perpetual sequence of anachronistic references, the songs try so hard to tie in with the collective memory of a sympathetic fan base that they fail to say anything much but this: contemporary Schwarz Stein is for those who remember. Without that memory, there just isn’t much to enjoy.

 

 

Spoiler

Hello fellow monochromians!

 

Thank you so much for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on Schwarz Stein's new mini-album! Also, criticism of my writing and assessment is very much welcome! This is the first proper review I've ever written and even though it was a lot of work, it has also given me a lot of joy and I'd like to improve and continue doing this in the future.

 

Thanks again, see you around 🐒

 

Edited by VESSMIER

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it!

 

Even after so many disappointments, my hope for them returning to form never dies. I'm curious how their two new singles will turn out, even though I feel that there won't be any surprises. But you never know.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You write well and I enjoyed reading your take. I totally agree, Schwarz Stein peaked long ago. I still like Kaya as a personality/talent and some of the old songs, but the creative bankruptcy and shameless fanbase gouging tactics leave me cold on the duo overall. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, VESSMIER said:

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it!

 

Even after so many disappointments, my hope for them returning to form never dies. I'm curious how their two new singles will turn out, even though I feel that there won't be any surprises. But you never know.

Yeah - they're definitely something special (even by definition alone) within VK. Can't really think of anyone else that has done their sound specifically, even the other electro/goth leaning acts approach it from a different angle. Would love to see them inject some of that initial goodness into some new tracks, but at the very least I'm glad Kaya seems to be enjoying a relatively successful career (from what I can tell?)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
19 hours ago, nomemorial said:

Would love to see them inject some of that initial goodness into some new tracks [...]

...and I'm sure they could if they just tried. It's pretty obvious that Schwarz Stein is nothing more than a side project for Kaya nowadays and that his involvement in it and his collaboration with Hora is probably restricted to a minimum / whatever fits his busy schedule. You can't really blame him but it's a little frustrating.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I completely agree with you. What about their new release Ever After? The first time I listened, I thought is this Sirius from domiNATE? Then I read your post. I have the same feeling toward what Schwarz Stein is doing... What a pity... However, I really enjoyed 黒い羊. Their faded gothic  essense still there... Somehow I guess... Can you tell us what do you think about it?

Edited by cybernated

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, cybernated said:

What about their new release Ever After? The first time I listened, I thought is this Sirius from domiNATE?

 

My thoughts exactly :D 

 

To be honest I don't have a lot to say about Ever After, it's a perfectly unspectacular single. The thing that struck me most is the production tbh, it sounds so much better than on Immortal Verses, let alone Recurrence of Hallucination; much silkier, smoother and dynamic. The beats have weight, the bass is tangible and there's a much more "natural" contrast between the lower frequencies and the sparklier side of the synths and percussion. At last, the instrumentals don't sound like they were filtered through Tupperware, yay!

 

Other than that I was a little disappointed in the overly predictable, meandering and simplistic vocal melodies. Also, the super cheesy hook on Ever After kinda ruins an otherwise okay track :< 

 

I still regard this single as an improvement over Immortal Verses though, albeit small. 

Edited by VESSMIER

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...