ALBUM REVIEW: Urlaub in Polen – ‘All’: welcome and surprise return of fine krautrock pair

IT’S BEEN a while since we’ve witnessed a proper miracle. There’s been no smiling statues, returns from the dead or curing the blind with the power of touch alone for ages now, and it’s safe to say that this year could certainly do with a couple.

So, since I haven’t quite mastered the whole water into wine thing yet, we’ll have to make do with the great alternative miracle of All, an album that shouldn’t actually exist. 

All is the sixth album from the German duo Urlaub in Polen and was released at the start of this month, nine years after Georg Brenner and Jan Philipp Janzen originally announced that they were disbanding. The result of this miraculous resurrection of the band is an album that feels bold and refreshing, packed full of ambitious textures and sounds. In short, it’s a million miles away from the zombie-like rehash of old ideas that I had cynically expected.

Of course, Urlaub in Polen haven’t risen from the dead just to lull you back in time with nostalgic recreations of their past; they haven’t dug themselves up through six feet of earth just to stir up some undirected anger with a noise rock assault on your eardrums. No. They’re here to make you sit up and listen. Actually listen.

Although more coherent in terms of genre than their previous albums, All still defies classification as it strides from ambient to punk, from electronica to disco, all while remaining firmly reliant on its krautrock foundations. It’s a compelling blend of just about everything. Luckily, all its various elements are tied together by Janzen’s crisp and precise drumming which prevents this sprawling album from drifting off into its own warped, outer-space soundtracks. 

The opening track, “Void”, does what it says on the tin, capturing a slice of the mystical, aforementioned chasm and pouring it directly into your ears. There’s an initial scratching, rattling, chaos with all the whirs and beeps of a possessed microwave that soon gives way to a single note which slices through the roomy silence with a resonating clarity. The strangely serene soundscape that this creates is only fleeting though, existing for a mere 30 seconds before it’s chased away by the off-kilter, low-slung groove of “Impulse Response”. 

This track is twisted pop at its best with distorted guitars, faint sirens and wobbling, sliding, scales that ring out across the tense beats and choppy guitar riffs.  Brenner’s vocals, warped and filtered, capture some of that classic Kraftwerk sound here too, jumping out against the backdrop of faintly pulsating electronic melodies.

“2 Sec. Delay” sees Urlaub in Polen continue to expand on these electronic credentials with a dense, menacing mix of all kinds of blips, squeals and tones, not to mention the crackling, spoken vocals that cast an eerie shadow over the whole cosmic affair.

The drum-led “T.H.D.T.” will soon bring you back down to earth as the tight, precise beats keep the swaggering bass and husky, spiralling, vocals firmly tethered to this planet. Not for long, mind you. The whole track soon spaces out into a sprawling, synth soundscape with pulsating tones zipping through the air amidst nebulas of hushed, disembodied vocals, softly murmuring above that reliable, ever-present beat.

A brief interlude of gargling electronic tones and rumbling bass follows with “Rodeo”, and then it’s straight onto an album highlight with “The Witcher”. Getting off to a tense start with a frantic drum beat, interspersed with various squeaks and beeps, “The Witcher” then steadily builds with languid snarls from the guitar, sliding notes and scratches until it reaches a raucous and exhilarating climax.  The shots of percussion repeat themselves, angrily bubbling away under the feedback screeches and sporadic, stop-starts of the howling guitars; the same howling guitars that eventually dissolve into a single note, fizzing and crackling away like a particularly violent bath bomb.

There’s no time to get your breath back though; it’s straight into round two. Everything urgently builds back up again with the tension culminating in revving electronic roars with another aggressive crescendo, all before it dies down again, leaving just Janzen’s crisp, precise drums to carry the track. And this is where we witness another miracle –  a saxophone. Slippery and smooth, all jazzy trills and glissandos, it hogs the limelight entirely, soaking up the attention with its lingering, showy solo above that unwavering beat. A real sit-up and listen moment.

Next up is “Overall”, a masterclass in percussion. With its layered rhythms and syncopated beats below the soaring, choral synths, it is clear that Janzen is having a field day here. It’s followed by “The Hunter”, a  track that marks a return to those blends of krautrock and electronica, with catchy base motifs paired with flying synths that seem to leave trails in their wake, never fully fading. 

The penultimate track, “LTS”, features more pattering percussion overlaid by trembling synths and detached, muted, vocals. It’s apprehensive and nervy but skilfully positioned to make a compelling juxtaposition with the intoxicating, disco-influenced “Proxy Music”.

“Proxy Music”, as the name’s potential pun and allusion to Brian Eno might suggest, begins with an ambient-influenced soundscape, all chimes and peals of layered synths, hovering just out of reach as they bleed into each other and merge, reaching ethereal heights. Then there’s a sudden shift in sound as you’re briefly teased with a bassline and then, with a hit of drums, boom! It’s in. Now everything really gets going with an irresistible groove, all upbeat, simmering melodies, simple yet infectious and then: boom! Cue another shift as “Proxy Music” transforms into a bona fide, twisted, dance track with fuzzy guitars, propulsive rhythms and reverb-drenched female vocals. Not to mention plenty of time to have a dance before the song, and with it the album, fades out.

And so, All ends on one hell of a high. Although this triumphant resurrection from Urlaub in Polen may not form the basis of a major world religion, nor result in the canonisation of Jan Philipp Janzen and Georg Brenner, as minor miracles go, it’s one that I’ll happily take. 

Urlaub in Polen’s All is available now from Tapete on digital download, CD and vinyl. You can order your copy direct from the label here, or from your trusted local record emporium.

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