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Grauzone - A Band Who Exist In The Forever
Richard Foster , March 31st, 2021 08:08

Richard Foster dives into a new box set charting the work of Swiss NDW, post punk, coldwave, art punk, who-knows-what-the-hell-they-were group, Grauzone and finds some extraordinary music

Grauzone courtesy Off Course Records

The quality of “coldness” informed many artistic agendas back in 1981. Billy Mackenzie sang of Düsseldorf being a “cold place” on Associates’ ‘White Car In Germany’ whilst Nijmegen’s brilliant Mekanik Kommando chipped in with the atmospheric ‘Icefield’. There are also a number of visual works to cite, the most famous in the pop world probably being Jan Van Munster's 1981 structure ‘Energie-Piek ijs’, an image of which eventually found its way onto the inside cover of the 1988 Joy Division compilation, Substance. The title directly translates as the “peak moment of an energy” captured in time and frozen in ice. Van Munster's image suggests there is no need for further embellishment or development. You can say the same about the reputation of shadowy Swiss art punk band Grauzone, their one album and their gloriously sub-zero, zeitgeist-defining debut single, ‘Eisbär’.

Thinking of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, it’s impossible to imagine a record to be more representative of its time. A hermetic slab of proto cold wave, driven by the most rudimentary of beats, the single brilliantly captures the atmosphere of that fractious, alienated and paranoid time. The tortured, romantic thoughtforms that singer Martin Eicher delivers in a half-shout perfectly captures the era’s “look, but don’t touch!” attitude.

"Ich möchte ein Eisbär sein im kalten Polar / Dann müsste ich nicht mehr schrei'n / Alles wär' so klar… [I want to be a polar bear in the cold arctic / Then I wouldn't have to scream anymore / Everything would be so clear…]

‘Eisbär’ was a smash in Europe, scoring particularly high in the German and Austrian charts. What gives the track its undeniable magic is the mysterious, “frosty” sonic atmosphere, built up by the often muffled, quasi-futurist synths, the saxophone squeaks that inform the tail-off and spindly guitar lines that saw and buzz around the thud of the beat. Everything informs the whole and nothing distracts from the job of wrapping the listener up in a delicious fog of their own imaginings.

One remarkable example of how perfectly ‘Eisbär’ captured the brittle indeterminacy and restlessness of the young in Western Europe at that time is how it has been given the chance to soundtrack a segment from a Dutch pirate TV broadcast from PKP TV, a film of Dutch-Latvian graffiti pioneer Dr Rat, taken days before his death from an overdose in June 1981. The single accompanies Rat painting his tag in the Pissteeg [Piss alley], off Amsterdam’s main shopping street, Kalverstraat. Two legendary artists of that time, each leaving a string of unanswered questions in their wake.

But ‘Eisbär’ isn’t some ghostly echo of an often over-eulogised era. It may be a defining cut of Cold War alternative music, but it has also successfully disengaged itself from the constraints of any particular trope. The single’s initial success probably led to the band being lumped into the Neue Deutsche Welle, a marketing trick that no punter at the time, outside of the nations in question, would have been bothered to correct. There again it’s worth pointing out that Grauzone weren’t the only Swiss press-ganged into the NDW, as the term increasingly became associated with compilations of modern-sounding bands singing in German. Dieter Meier’s Yello, for example, also found themselves on such a venture, released by the Vertigo label in 1981. And ‘Eisbär’ has survived multiple reinterpretations over time, including versions that have taken in house, hard house, dance metal, heavy metal, stoner, lounge, alternative pop, comedy, and a Europe-wide dance hit with 'GrooveZone'. It’s also appeared in a Swiss-French animated film called My Life As A Courgette.

Grauzone courtesy Off Course Records

The band themselves, though, are still locked in that mythical post punk/new wave era and no wonder. Living up to the obscure nature of their name, Grauzone played their first gig under the equally mauve moniker of XXX, made one album and three singles and played ten gigs in their lifetime. At these shows, they often turned their backs to the audience and used black lights to play in near darkness. They also gave a handful of passive-aggressive interviews to the press. Their artwork revelled in creating a sense of ambiguity and a predilection for leaving semi-obscure visual references. To top it all they split up before ever playing outside of their native country. All “very” 1981. Making matters even more time-locked, Grauzone have not indulged in the recent reunion craze that has engulfed their 80s peers. Not that there has been much chance of a reunion given one of the Eicher brothers, Martin, seems quite happy staying in his mountain hut, in true Swiss mage style. A Grauzone in permafrost, with their future forever shrouded in mountain mist. A band that remains resolutely in the margins while making something that wholly captures the zeitgeist of their time, the sort of trick J. D. Salinger pulled off with Catcher In The Rye.

Sill; Grauzone didn’t just magically appear like Athena, fully formed from Zeus’s brow. The core of the band had a punk pedigree, some members playing in the tough Glueams, part of a febrile Swiss punk scene that boasted enjoyably antsy acts like CRAZY, TNT and Sperma. Switzerland wasn’t a land that passed contemporary cultural history by, either. Like those in many other European cities, particularly Amsterdam and Berlin, Swiss punks, artists, squatters and students were actively involved in wider civic unrest that seemed endemic in the western Europe of 1980. A set of actions that, in one Swiss city at least, earned the moniker Züri Brännt (Zurich is burning); a name that is also the title of TNT’s 50 seconds of high octane punk howl. For the curious, there is plenty of contemporary Swiss music to enjoy that sits closer in style and attitude to that heard on Grauzone’s LP. The remarkable Kleenex/LiLiPUT, Grauzone soulmates, conjured up some fantastic “art punk” music. Yello, too, played with minimal beats and inventive electronic soundscapes, though the duo’s debut LP, Solid Pleasure and its follow up, the magnificent Claro Que Si drops huge hints over the more baroque, expansive, self-reverential 1980s that were about to conquer popular music in Europe.

Regardless of context, Grauzone are still in many pop mythologies a band that appeared and then disappeared, leaving four singles (one posthumous) and one great album in their wake. With the singer living in a hut up a Swiss mountain. This is the sort of story that can, in the current climate, allow itself a number of sequels with the same material. The original LP had been rereleased ten years previously but now, with the masters in the possession of Stephen Eicher, it appears again as an extended anniversary edition in a box set format, full of tantalising Xerox art and with a live gig from 1980 in tow. Released on the very aptly named, (for Grauzone), We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want.

What can be heard when live tape and album are played in chronological order, is a band completely reforming and remodelling itself as a concept. The bonus live gig, recorded at Gaskessel in Bern on the 12 April 1980, is very loose and very enjoyable; merely because it feels “alive”, human, and at the mercy of chance. Plus there are tracks you would never associate with Grauzone if your introduction was ‘Eisbär’ or ‘Moskau’. The band rips through a set of numbers that never make their legendary LP with aplomb. Power chords slash and jab through these overheated art punk tracks, making a great counterpoint to some fevered, attempted on-the-one beats and hollered repeat choruses. This really is performance punk, hammered into shape on the creative anvil there and then. Tracks like ‘I Live In A Jungle’ are messy, arty and glam racket yelpalongs. Stripping away another layer of the Grauzone myth we find that most of the numbers are howled out in English. The band, then, sounds more like a punk Palais Schaumberg or a chaotic Subway Sect than the Ice Men of legend. And there is more than a nod now and again, however ill-formed or wayward, to the Velvet Underground. Though we do get a recognisable album track in ‘Moskau’ and the opening ‘Grauzone’.

As the band started to record the singles and album in late 1980, the looseness, wit and energy of their live shows was replaced by a discipline born of a necessity of just keeping in time and doing the basics right in a studio. This seemingly reductive approach informed the hypnotic beat and minimal romanticisms found on the ‘Eisbär’ and the ‘Moskau’/ ‘Ein Tanz mit dem Tod’/ ‘Ich lieb sie’ singles, and album tracks, such as the beautiful opening instrumental, ‘Film 2’, the brilliantly spooky ‘Kälte Kriecht’ and the sweet, melancholic ‘Hinter den Bergen’.

A lot of experimentation, using home-built gadgetry and equipment, and on-the-spot song writing also gives the debut record a vitality and inner truth, as well as a creative flexibility that is impossible to dismiss, even after 40 years. This inventiveness, springing from the almost blank template, is to be heard in tracks like ‘Schlachtet!’ which adopts Neu!’s “Apache beat” (listen to the Düsseldorf duo’s 1972 track, ‘Lila Engel’). Then there is ‘Marmelade Und Himbeereis’, a mix of jagged post-punk guitar lines and psychicke synths that come on a bit like Klaus “vier kanal” Schultz. The energetic ‘Wutendes Glas’ is driven by a beautifully simple melody and a stomping bassline that – when taken as a whole – almost could be seen as a superior piss take of NDW sound.

These references to older krautrockers allows mention of engineer Etienne Conod, setting the controls for the heart of the ice caps in the fastness of his own studios, Sunrise. Sunrise was a place where many art rock luminaries such as Aksak Maboul, Art Zoyd, Art Bears and Fred Frith, Henry Cow and Embryo recorded alongside the Swiss Wave and punk scene bands such as Sperma and Chaos. Conod maybe acted like some mage passing on weird inner wisdom to Grauzone. His fledgling label (also called Sunrise) certainly released some offbeat sounds around this time, including Vogel’s brilliant post-hippy trippy mash up, ‘Bananas Gas’/ ‘No Nie Mee'.

Conod’s experiences also throw a rope bridge to various kosmische and alternative German post-hippy scenes. This is total projection but tracks like ‘Maikäfer Flieg’ have a sense of heady otherworldliness and sehnsucht that can be heard on the “Mage” releases from Rolf Ulrich Kaiser’s notorious Cosmic Couriers label; themselves products of an out-there Swiss scene. Whether these high altitude weirdnesses also find a place on later alternative Swiss music is anyone's guess. Grauzone’s stringent, Young Werther-esque sense of melancholy and almost fragile if controlled sense of grandeur doesn’t really seem to find an echo in other Swiss acts who won acclaim in this period, specifically The Young Gods, another band who mined the studio to create their own world. Maybe that is the ultimate point of Grauzone, an act who exists in the forever. Who knows?

Grauzone's 40 Years Anniversary Box Set is out now on We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want records