I’ve always been a bit of a trainspotter when it comes to Neue Deutsche Welle (German new wave). Lack of cynicism, new-romantic pretence and self-consciousness so rampant in English music in the aftermath of punk served the landscape of German pop well as the world folded into the dirty 80s. As much as it was a breeding ground for would-be pop stars, NDW was also the commercial spike of a greater amorphous musical continuum, running from the experimental electronic 70s into the synth and industrial underground of the 1980s and beyond.
Several success stories from the NDW – Trio, Falco, Nena, Peter Schilling – recorded English language versions of their key singles and fared respectably in the English charts, inarguably the centre of the pop universe at the time. But NDW’s creative sprawl went far beyond this, and far beyond domestic heavy hitters like Ideal or Rheingold. Dozens and dozens of fascinating records existed by artists mixing punk energy with funk, electronics, reggae, rock, calypso and cabaret. To provide examples of these would stray too far from the task at hand, so I won’t – Suffice to say that good old K-tel and their ilk issued a lot of NDW compilations c.1981-1983 and you can generally find these for peanuts on Discogs.
So, where Berlin singer Sofia Portanet fits into all of this is that her debut album, Freier Geist, is unabashedly a sharp reinvention of NDW, mixing several rich sources of music with German, English and French lyrics and abundance of literary and life references. Ms Portanet was born in 1989 so has no first-hand experience of the era, but this ultimately matters little. Whatever inspiration, guidance, taste or other factors are driving musical direction here, she has come out guns blazing with an energetic and intoxicating debut album.
What is immediately apparent from the opening track, Free Ghost(Freier Geist), is a strength and confidence in reshaping the best elements of NDW with spirited vocals and melodic potency. Originally released as a single in 2018, this is short and sweet – an early indication that nothing’s going to outstay its welcome.
Even better is Menschen und Mächte with its wonderful showcase of vocal prowess and early Cure guitar chops over an ample drenching of keyboards – Undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights.
“Die Wanderratten”, an 1855 poem by radical German poet Heinrich Heine inspired the theme of Wanderratte or “Wandering Rat”. This is a thumping piece of vintage German new wave – keyboard and drum led with restrained and sometimes deadpan vocals straight out of the Annette Humpe playbook. It plays closely with those tropes but does it exceptionally well! … And the video brazenly borrows Black Lodge decor… always a plus!
The downbeat Das Kind is something more esoteric, and its gothic, shimmering guitars serve as a vehicle for lyrical ideas drawn from the work of Bohemian-Austrian mystical poet Ranier Maria Rilke.
The glorious break-up song Planet Mars closes side one with some of the most dynamic vocal curls and spikes you’re likely to hear outside of a Nina Hagen record, but where Mrs Hagen’s delivery is often one of freakishly dour but loveable growls, Sofia Portanet serves melody, not discord, and the results are remarkable in their own way.
Although side A is the heavy hitter of the album, the flipside is no slouch, driving through the gothic-tinged pop of Art Deco, Waage and Ringe. There’s more stylistic similarity between these tracks as the album seems to settle into itself with a generous tinge of a late 80’s 4AD vibe.
But it’s the final track of this side that really steals all the attention – an impressive rendition of Racines by French singer Catherine Ribeiro. I know nothing about this artist and originally thought it might be an Edith Piaf deep dive, such is Sofia Portanet’s commanding vocal delivery, but it’s nothing short of a grandiose way to round the album off!
I’m guessing that a normal version of 2020 would have been filled with tactical touring, festival dates and other promotion that might have made this album a big deal instead of a glowing oddity restrained by a shitbag of a year. A live lockdown session from July demonstrates a singer and band more than ready to conquer, which makes me hopeful that I’ll witness this all live at some point in time.
Freier Geist wears its influences on its sleeve and plays with old school ingredients in a convincing and theatrical manner, showcasing the superb talents in Sofia Portanet and her collaborating producer Steffen Kahles. The result is an extremely self-assured debut album and one that spends a lot of time on the turntable here!