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Max Grainger discusses the Swiss post-punk enigmas Grauzone
Something is intriguing about great bands who only release a single album. There is, undoubtedly, the pang of disappointment that all you will ever have from this band is the one album. There are the thoughts of what could have been, what might’ve come next; could they have made something even better that will never be heard? But in another way, a single release makes what’s there even more special. That single album can be poured over, listened to, again and again, cherished for being the only album you’ll hear from a band you love. One such record holds pride of place in my collection: Grauzone, the self-titled and only LP from the Swiss band Grauzone released in 1981.
The opening instrumental track, FILM 2, sets the tone of what’s to come. Cold, detached electronic drums are matched with a bouncing synth bassline, with more synth elements and vocal samples creeping in as it progresses. Everything is drenched in reverb and delay, sounding as though the sounds are bouncing off concrete walls and down dark bunker corridors. Soon after the synths, the drums, and the vocal samples reach their peak; they begin to fade as a simple synth line slowly rises above all else until it’s all that remains. The abrupt end of FILM 2 gives way to the album’s most traditional post-punk song, Schlachtet!. The electronics are replaced with a pounding bass drum and crunching snare of a drum kit, overdriven guitars blending together into a harsh surge, all while an unrelenting bassline underpins it all. Sharp vocals, closer to rhythmic demanding than singing, come to the forefront here. Lyrics of how ‘The sad ones are slaughtered/ The world becomes funny’ pair perfectly with the oppressive, unrelenting instrumental interjected with samples of distorted gunshots. The drums pick up with intensifying snare rolls as the gunshots become more frequent, before Schlachtet! gives way to the fully electronic Hinter Den Bergen. Airy drum machine hi-hats float alongside reverb-soaked vocals above a warm synth bassline, with a simple lead synth melody emerging before the drums descend into manic skittering. All instrumentation fades out, leaving only the vocals singing of what was ‘Far behind the mountains’.
The dark, foreboding instrumental Maikäfer Flieg is followed by a tonal break with Marmalade Und Himbeereis. Gone are the heavy synth lines and layered, echoed vocals as the sounds of waves against the shore and a clean guitar riff drift in. A gentle, sincere synth lead mimics an ocean breeze, with vocals singing of ‘Jam and raspberry ice cream’ on an Italian beach. The lyrics here are the most straightforward and emotional on the whole record, with lines like ‘Pull me towards you/ and say in a shaky voice:/ “Take me as I am”’ showing the only hints of emotion on an otherwise emotionally sterile record. The song is not without its own darker side; however; the line ‘Our blood drips on the sand’ hints at a darker undertone to this love song not fully revealed. Or at least not until after a brief Italian spoken-word interlude, whereby the song then lurches back into the more familiar post-punk territory. The tempo rises as the more familiar bass lines and drumbeats return, the drive back on the guitar as it sears away. The previously gentle vocals are now a grating shout repeating the line ‘We are all prostitutes’, bringing back the edge of previous tracks.
Side 2 is where the previously separated synth and post-punk elements mesh together to create a cohesive new-wave sound. Wütendes Glas brings together the programmed synth basslines of tracks like FILM 2 with the classic post-punk guitars found on Schlactet! while also bringing in the danceability of groups such as Gang of Four. Indeed, the underlying synth basslines of many tracks were ahead of their time and wouldn’t sound out of place in the club scenes of the following decade. This perfect mix reaches its peak in Der Weg Zu Zweit, the culmination everything that has come before it, but also so much more. A simple, crisp drum machine beat sets the pace, while layered clean guitars give both rhythm and flair. Melodic bassline bubbles underneath and eerie synths add to the atmosphere, with harsh stabs of an overdriven guitar cut through all else. The synths here don’t take centre stage, instead of coming in later to add to the atmosphere of the piece. These two tracks draw comparisons to early New Order releases, most notably Movement. It’s in the guitar tone, the fast-paced, hi-hat heavy drumbeats, the melodic basslines, even in the singing. Despite being the penultimate track, Der Weg Zu Zweit is Grauzone’s centrepiece, bringing together all the sounds explored through the rest of the tracklist into a single standout song.
As the smashing glass at the end of the final track, In der Nacht, slows to nothing, comparisons to New Order bring about the inevitable thought of what Grauzone could have been. Wütendes Glas and Der Weg Zu Zweit would have fit perfectly on New Order’s Movement, fusing post-punk roots with modern synthesisers and electronic dance beats. The whole album could be seen as the Swiss counterpart to New Order’s seminal debut; the more electronic tracks such as Maikäfer Flieg match New Order’s Truth, while more traditional songs like Schlachtet! are the siblings of the post-Joy Division sound of Dreams Never End. The two records can be held together as companion pieces, two independent explorations of the same sound. Yet this is where the comparison ends. New Order would go on refine their sound and reach commercial success with following releases, while Grauzone would disband in 1982 and fade into obscurity. Had Grauzone stayed together, would they have released their Blue Monday? Could they have gone on to be as huge and as influential as New Order? As appealing as it is to think about what could have been, it’s my thoughts that Grauzone should be appreciated for what they created rather than lamenting what could have been. Grauzone is an exceptional album, blending together the sounds of the time expertly to create a tight, cohesive record. Nothing sounds out of place, but there’s enough variety in its 32-minute runtime to keep the listener engaged. With a bit of searching, it’s easy to find incredible but forgotten records like this and to carry on the memory of otherwise forgotten bands.