Out Of Line
Blutengel is a contentious topic around the ID:UD HQ. It’s not that we have a real difference of opinion when it comes to the quality of the music made by Chris Pohl and his cabal of vampire cosplayers; the senior staff concurs that it is competent, occasionally kind of fun, but ultimately too hokey to ever enjoy in a serious way. The divide really comes from the individual tolerances of your humble writers for their particular brand of silliness. Whereas I harbour a mild affection for their bloodsucking antics, Bruce finds them a bridge too far (despite the fact that he actively listens to bands like Nosferatu for god’s sake). I’ll cop to playing up my enjoyment of the group to troll my colleague, but I do feel like there’s something worth considering when it comes to Blutengel, namely that they are a fairly unique product of Our Thing (as well as being massively popular in certain corners of it). Beneath the massive schmear of White Wolf that coats every inch of their catalogue, is there really that much to differentiate them musically from any number of other acts from this end of the pool?
2013’s Monument might be the ideal subject for figuring that out. As their eighth LP, it’s a pretty pure distillation of their schtick. Said schtick, if you’re unfamiliar, consists of over the top modern day darkwave with amped up dance elements and the drama set to “Lestat”. It’s a formula that could only emerge from a few decades of club cross-pollination, the perfect mix for romantic goths who have developed a sweet tooth (fang? sorry, sorry) for the four-on-the-floor dance beats and big synth leads of futurepop and EBM. Pohl knows how to work that formula to maximum effect and when he really pours it on it’s hard for me to entirely deny the attraction. Songs like the ultra-catchy “Walk Away” and “Tears Might Dry” play up the theatrics to a ridiculous degree, and while Pohl and co-vocalist Ulrike Goldmann won’t win any awards for the subtlety of their delivery they’re both good at selling the over-the-top gimmick. And with production provided by expert studio hand Henning Verlage (Neuroticfish/Unheilig), the package is pretty impeccable as far as pop appeal goes, each element in the mix polished to a club-ready sheen. There are some out of pocket moments certainly (the addition of a dubstep breakdown on the otherwise inoffensive “All These Lies” for example), and I gotta admit that the E Nomine level bombast on “Willst Du?” is difficult not to smirk at, but I can objectively get why people with a certain sensibility like it.
…And that is what it comes down to, really. I can sit here all day and make jokes (*ahem* “I had to peel the red wax off the CD before I could listen to it. Chuck E. Cheese got a song-writing credit on this record. I heard they’re embarking on a world-tour of Wisconsin. This dude sweats brie and his music tastes good grated on some fresh pasta. The limited edition fan pack came with a fondue set.”), but it’s not like this band is trying to be something they aren’t. Blutengel is a schlocky band that makes schlocky albums, it’s true.Monument is no exception to that, but at least it’s marginally self-aware and well executed in that context. In a continuum that includes the aesthetic excesses of aggrotech and cybergoth, are Pohl and company really all that ludicrous? Well, yeah, I guess they kind of are, but they’re also one-upping a lot of the bands in those genres; “Lebensrichter” does the two note lead and big sweeping pad thing more competently than most terror acts can manage. Don’t get me wrong, I can lob all sorts of darts at this record – it’s tacky, the orchestral elements are ridiculously overblown, it trades in lyrical cliches – but it’s sort of immune to that kind of criticism, because it’s exactly how I imagine Chris Pohl wants it to sound. It’s not objectively good by my standards, but it’s not offensively terrible either, and it occasionally borders on fun. Can you ask for anything more from a Vampire-themed synth act?
Stepping back for a moment, I can recognize the flaws in that sort of reasoning, at best it’s an argument that serves as an indicator of the nadir we’ve hit when it comes to the quality of a lot of dark club music. I’m not gonna sit here and lionize competence over innovation, but I do think a record like Monument has some value as a historical document. It’s a distillation of sounds and styles that belong to us and are part of our legacy as a scene, whether we want them or not. You don’t have to like them, but we can’t entirely discount them either. For my own part, I can admit that although my pride will never allow me to really get on board with them, I’m comfortable allowing myself the occasional indulgence.
I think you have to think of Blutengel as pop music and nothing more than that. Chris Pohl is a goth Justin Timberlake. That’s not a bad thing.
The point behind pop music is that it’s meant to be popular, everyone has to be dancing to the same beat (it’s dark club music after all) and know what to expect – it’s a form of collective experience. There’s not much room for innovation in the music, and the basic formula hasn’t changed for decades. So the real innovation is in style and in the technology used to make it. Blutengel is that ethos applied to gothic music.
Now, you and the ID:YD team probably aren’t going to embrace pop, and that’s fine too. I see this blog as interested in musical innovation, the outer boundaries and evolution of gothic-industrial music. Blutengel doesn’t really have a place at that table. But I think the average person just wants to dance and get their $15 bucks worth.
That being said, I think you do a good job taking Blutengel on their own terms, and so this is a review I’d recommend. But I’m wary of saying things like “nadir in club music” when innovative experimental music is not necessarily a good fit for club music. It’s not the kind of venue for an act like White Car, or whatever more innovative group you’d like. Blutengel actually reminds me a lot of gay club music, with its emphasis on big beats and campy cheese. Gay clubs are also where you’d hear the best club music out there.
Thanks for the feedback! I’m actually quite interested in pop music, although I don’t talk much about in on here, largely because there is a whole world of bloggers doing good work analyzing and theorizing about that stuff. I guess my whole thing with Blutengel is that yes, they are a “pop” group in some sense, but they also exist within the boundaries of the goth/industrial community (at least in North America). That’s super interesting to me!
Awesome. I hear Blutengel has record signings at the German equivalent of Best Buy. Which kind of blows my mind.
Awesome article, thanks a lot. That’s the kind of criticism that’s missing from most german writings on the scene. I love the idea of holding your journalism to a certain kind of standard, as you seem to do on this site, instead of falling into the trap of the praising/bashing game that is to be found at most other places, including most of our more popular ones in Germany. I’d love for there to be more of a serious critics approach and I really do appreciate the attempt to objectively figure out meaning and worth of a band or an album, even if it’s not to your particular taste. Very well done.
And I think you pretty much nailed the attitude of Chris Pohl, who is on record stating that the term “intelligent electro” is the one term of scene vocabulary he hates more than anything. He has also repeatedly stated that it’s not artistry or experimentalization that will get you remembered in hearts and minds, but great melodies. Contrasting his ego, he has a healthy amount of humour and self-awareness, once stating that he would like for his gravestone to say “The Dieter Bohlen Of Goth”.
As for the comment about record signings, yeah, the band has gotten pretty popular over here. I always wonder what to make of these numbers, since album sales in general are that much in the toilet, but they did make the top 10 of the charts with their last two albums and reportedly managed to sell about 30.000 copies each time. Which, like I said, may be more of a statement of how little you have to sell these days to get a top 10 entry, but then again, that’s an impressive number for a band that you would think is pretty much off in their own weird little niche…Twilight and vampire craze in general of course might have helped for exactly this thing to gain wider acceptance.
As far as the original “community” it is perhaps important to note that Blutengel isn’t really thought of in terms of “industrial” at all over here, you will more likely see them lumped in (correctly or not) alongside more outrageous (maybe “schlocky” in your terms) acts like Das Ich, ASP, Samsas Traum, Umbra Et Imago or maybe even Untoten, who all specialize in heavily stylised dark german lyrics, have a distinct image and draw from all kinds of music as their influence, certainly not strictly electronics. And if you look at ASP and Blutengel co-headlining this years M’era Luna Festival alongside HIM and Nightwish, then that distinction becomes even more clear. The traditional “industrial” scene certainly has thrown them out quite some time ago.
May I also suggest you try their new classical concerts for even more cheese? 😉
Wow, thanks for the thoughtful comment! Good to get the inside scoop from someone in Germany, since what we get over here is always distorted through a lens of online and print mags and label promo. The point re: other bands they’re lumped in with is particularly interesting to me, as of the acts you mention only Das Ich have much of a profile in NA, and are considered to be part of the industrial scene.
Hey, thank you for the response. Don’t know how I missed your page for so long, but you’re running a really great show here. I have to admit, “Your Thing” may not be entirely my thing, as far as the pure industrial goes, but I’ve read with quite some interest your articles about Covenant und Rome. I’ve been dabbling in the Gothic journalism thing myself a few years ago, but eventually just quit because of a lack of interest, while always somehow envying the “indie people”. Say what you will about Pitchfork or Popmatters etc., but there is always real discourse going on, while I’ve made the experience that talking about your scene as a culture in a wider perspective is sadly very much out of style with Goth, it’s often very much a “club music and mindless fun only” thing these days, as of course others may have already lamented in this comments section…delighted by your site!
Oh, I’m not making a 100% statement. You may of course meet people at a festival who tell you they came to see Front 242, DAF and Blutengel, who group those bands together. But most of the time there is a divide between something of an “old school” and a “new school”, where especially younger people are more drawn to Blutengel or ASP or maybe an act like Umbra Et Imago, who all share the over-the-top image, the stage show with pyro and/or naked people/fake blood, a certain kind of pop appeal AND the lyrics that draw heavily on the gothic novel thing. Romanticism, vampires, werewolves, black butterflies (with ASP releasing a succession of concept albums based on “the dark tower” and “the black butterfly”, often in a kind of stylised expressive German, think kinda the aequivilant of Ye Olde English speak). So the person who says they came to see Blutengel is mostly the person who will also go see ASP and then stay for Nightwish – and not interested at all in seeing Front 242. The line, I think, is not so much drawn between “industrial” and “guitar rock” or something, those do appear at the same shows together, but along the lines of image, themes and aesthetics.
Which actually could be a whole other paragraph some day…
Interestingly enough, I consider myself a fan of Front 242, Nightwish, and Blutengel, preferring the bands overall in that order. Then again, I’m also a fan of Pink Floyd, AFI, Daft Punk, Nine Inch Nails, Jimi Hendrix, They Might be Giants, and Throbbing Gristle, so that’s among the least interesting of my seemingly conflicting genre preferences.
Great review; you guys seem to have the impressive talent of exactly summing up my feelings about an album or group that I may not have even known that I had. I’ve yet to hear a Blutengel record that I can listen to all the way through without at some point wishing I were listening to something else, but they’ve made enough really enjoyable songs over the years to fill up a playlist nicely. “Kinder Dieser Stadt” is probably my favorite song by them. It’s cliche as Hell but has one of the strongest melodies on a synth song I’ve ever heard.