Album Review: Bohren & der Club of Gore – Piano Nights (2014)

Piano Nights is an album so cinematic and evocative it might just qualify for review on a movie website.

In another life this website used to be Movie Farm, and we covered movies. That was it. Since becoming Roobla we’ve started covering other topics, and the website has grown as a result. We cover music, gaming, movies and life in general now, and I think we’re better for it. I also think that a review of this album would fit within the remit of this site’s previous incarnation as strictly-movie based, because I doubt that you’d ever listen to a more cinematic album this year. We never really reviewed movie soundtracks which is a surprise, when you think about it, because plenty of people listen to movie soundtracks. I don’t listen to them myself but I can see the attraction – I do listen to game soundtracks, weirdly – and if my emotional response to “Piano Nights” by doom/jazz ensemble Bohren & der Club of Gore is anything to go by, maybe I should start.

They rarely play live, which of course I didn’t know when I walked into their set at Supersonic festival 2012. I stayed for ten minutes then departed in favour of somebody I was more familiar with, but probably not as keen on now. My abiding memory is of total darkness and a droning, never-ending, omnipresent saxophone accompanied by the sparest of percussion. This release is their latest, and also marks twenty years since their first album Gore Motel. If you listened to them back to back I doubt you’d recognise them as from the same band – the earlier release features the same sort of minimalist aesthetic, with more of a focus on guitars than the ambient jazz of their later work –  but that’s not to denigrate the quality of the work.

Their music envelopes you, takes you over and affects your surroundings making everything feel a little bit magical. Glacial jazz might sound horrific, and it might be to most normal ears but, like much of the best music, if you give yourself over to it you’ll reap the benefits hundredfold. It sounds like what you think of when you imagine the soundtrack to a David Lynch movie, and it makes you distinctly aware of your place in the world if you happen to walk under a street light, or through a darkened underpass.

They had it right at Supersonic festival when I wandered in, this is music to be enjoyed in the dark. It’s noir, it’s underplayed, it’s beautiful. You get the impression when listening to them that they are distinctly aware of how ridiculous the music could easily become, and how skillfully they navigate those waters. From the Tom-Waitsian title to the naive xylophone of “Ganz Leise Kommt Die Nacht”, this is a band fully aware of what they’re conveying to the listener, and even though every step feels natural, it’s also calculated. Every note, every ever-so-subtle cymbal crash, every echoing burst of saxophone is surgically engineered to tug at something inside you. They’re going for broke here, pulling out all the stops, and in doing so they’ve proven themselves more than capable of producing their best work in years after more than twenty years as a musical unit.

It’s evocative music, the sparseness of which almost forces you to concoct images to accompany what you’re listening to. I challenge anyone to listen to “Im Rauch” and not find themselves in the middle of a crime scene, stumbling upon clues as a bloodied corpse lies in the corner. I mentioned game soundtracks earlier, and those slightly off-kilter chimes from the piano brought to mind the L.A. Noire soundtrack, more specifically the sound the game makes when you stumble upon a clue. Like that game, for all the beauty on the surface there’s always an eerie sense of malice lurking just around a corner, in a note held for slightly too long or a pause taken when you’re not expecting it – on the surface, Ber Rosarotum Licht” seems to be setting you up for a bubble bath and a relaxing soak but, with the orchestral vocals in the background and the lingering sax there’s always sense of someone else there, in the corner of the bathroom or behind the shower curtain. It has the key changes and mournful passages you’d expect but there’s something deeper there, something not quite right.  There’s also some surprises along the way – the soaring Hammond organ of “Fahr Zur Holle” is a delight, as is the tuba of “Segeln Ohne Wind”, which goes on to incorporate a larger brass ensemble for the finale.

Let’s be clear: you already know if you’ll like this album. It’s divisive, and it’s not for most people. I’m sorry if I’ve come across as elitist, which wasn’t my intention – if you want something a bit different from the norm, a bit more affecting, a bit special, then I’d suggest you get hold of Piano Nights. You don’t have to, and nobody’s going to force you and nobody you talk to will ever have heard of Bohren & der Club of Gore. You’ll never see them live, you’ll never see them on TV, you’ll never hear about them winning a BRIT award, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth your time. They’ve been making great music for twenty years, soldiering on in the face of mainstream indifference, and that’s why you should love them.

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