For a band whose albums have never been released outside Germany, Neu! cast a disproportionately long shadow over modern music. The gliding pulse of their hypnotic beats and their coldly dissonant guitar lines pop up all over the avant-garde, among artists as diverse as Stereolab, David Bowie and Public Image Limited. In fact, almost all forms of electronic music owe a huge debt to Neu!, without whom neither trance music nor the very concept of the remix would likely have been invented. Influential as they may be, however, Neu! records have, until now, remained something of an esoteric secret, reverently name-checked by musicians but available only to the most ardent of vinyl-hounds. Therefore Astralwerks' long-overdue reissues of three essential Neu! recordings -- marking not only their first release in the U.S. but their first-ever release in the CD format -- promises to put Neu! in their rightful position as overlooked but essential geniuses, the Teutonic equivalent of the Buzzcocks or the Velvet Underground. It's about time.
In four short years (1971-75), Neu! released three eponymous albums (Neu!, Neu! 2 and Neu! '75), all of which managed to distill the uniquely German aesthetic of Krautrock into its purest form. Unlike Can, they never tried to blend in R&B or rock & roll, and though core Neu! members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother got their start in Kraftwerk, they eschewed the poppy, proto-new-wave sound typifying that group's late-era recordings. Instead, Neu! applied the polyrhythmic, electronically enhanced Krautrock method, wherein different layers of insistent beats meld, becoming hypnotic and driving through repetition, much like today's trance. Many early-'70s Krautrock practitioners studied under serialist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, but they were also listening to Anglo-American rock music at the time; Krautrock fed off the tension between modern art and popular culture, between movement and stasis.
Fittingly, Neu!'s music originates in a more literal tension. Dinger and Rother left Kraftwerk in 1971 and recorded Neu! in four days with producer Conrad Plank (who also worked with Kraftwerk and Can). Neu! is most notable as a primer on Dinger and Rother's musical ideas. About half the album consists of ambient soundscapes that predate Brian Eno's by about five years, such as "Sonderangebot," which sounds as if it were recorded in a tunnel. The other half comprises beat-driven songs of the type Neu! is best known for. "Hallogallo" is an autobahn of sound, with rhythms speeding by into the distance and fragments of melodies along the shoulder. It's a sonic template that they would revisit again and again, on Neu! 2's "Für Immer" (which sounds like a Sonic Youth dance track, if such a thing were ever to exist) and on Neu! '75's opener, "Isi," possibly the group's best song and arguably the impetus behind Stereolab's entire catalog. The funkiest track on Neu! is "Negativland," on which a deep, dramatic beat seems to gain speed until it bursts. Like much of Neu!'s work, it's not just about motion but about acceleration -- how motion itself changes.
This idea would come to fruition on Neu! 2, when financial difficulties forced Neu! to invent a new technique. After recording only two songs in the studio, Neu! ran out of money and opted to create faster and slower versions of each song to flesh out the album. In short, Neu! 2 is the first remix album. Don't expect DJ Shadow, though. Whereas "Neuschnee" stands as a beautiful, austere song, the frenetically speeded-up "Neuschnee 78" sounds like the Chipmunks. On the other hand, when "Super" is slowed to 16 rpm, it is completely transformed: A bleaker mood sets in, every drumbeat seems momentous and the song clangs like the best work of Einstürzende Neubaten. Neu! proves a fact often ignored by DJs and producers: Faster isn't necessarily better.
Up to this point, Neu!'s music blurred the line between rock and dance. Rother and Dinger may have played guitar and drums, but they changed the sounds and looped them until the music sounded as if it were the product of a man-machine union. After Neu! 2, their partnership dissolved briefly. Rother joined two members of the Düsseldorf collective Cluster (and, later, Brian Eno) to form Harmonia, a slightly more ambient affair. When he rejoined Dinger for Neu! '75, their reunion effort, neither's heart seemed to be in it. The result is an album that sounds like a pair of solo EPs and jumps between styles without really making connections between them. Although Rother's druggy komische (space rock) seems even more ethereal here and Dinger has sharpened his driving polyrhythms to the point of sounding dangerous, they rarely complement each other. Still, Dinger had one masterstroke up his sleeve. His "Hero" and "After Eight" are punk songs as nihilistic as those of the Stooges and the Sex Pistols, but they glide down their road to nowhere by way of an efficient, lock-groove rhythm -- even the lyrics to "Hero" are only a few lines looped to infinity. These songs marked the first attempts to combine punk aggression with electronic energy, and it's amazing how little the formula has advanced since then. Ministry, the Prodigy and fellow Germans Atari Teenage Riot all fail to improve on the streamlined menace of these songs.
Rother and Dinger's music may have conjured an infinite motorway, but Neu! '75 was the end of the road for them. Tim Gane of Stereolab may call them the "super-it band," but even he probably doesn't own a copy of Neu! 4, the 1986 reunion effort that has all but vanished from pop history. But their scant output isn't the tragedy: One of Neu!'s chief virtues was efficiency, and they managed to lay out their ideas about music in the space of three albums. The real shame is that we had to spend 30 years chasing their ideas before anyone could actually hear them.