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Alter Schwede Bernie Brooks , December 3rd, 2021 10:05

Nearly twenty years in, MY DISCO’s latest, commissioned for Melbourne’s Flash Forward arts programme, contains some of their most fascinating work, says Bernie Brooks

Having just moved house, I’m thinking more than I ever wanted to about foundations, new builds, old builds, hardwood construction – all that garbage. Foundations, though. From what I can tell, those are key. You’ve got to pay attention to the marks of healthy settling versus damage, that sort of thing. If the place you're checking out has “good bones” on top of a solid foundation, well look out! That one’s a keeper. Then there’s the difference between new builds and old builds – no comparison, at least where I live. Still, time and again, you see where folks have ploughed down properly sturdy places to kick up some new thing. Now, sure enough, not twenty years later, that new thing needs more fixing up than the 100-year-old bungalow next door. Anyway, this potentially tiresome preamble has a point, and it isn’t as off-topic as you might think: If you’re going to rip down something with a solid foundation, whatever you build in its place better be at least as good.

When MY DISCO’s last LP, Environment, came out a couple of years back, I called it something like a “radical act of self-erasure.” Contrary to the tightly coiled, highly rhythmic displays of tension and release that characterised earlier releases like Severe, Environment was a showcase of space more than anything else. Utilising roomsound to the fullest, MY DISCO and their collaborator Boris Wilsdorf created a deeply atmospheric, uh, environment. Capturing a certain sort of ambience seemed the primary concern. That ambience? Deeply haunted, rife with a miasmatic tension that hung low in the air. Listening to it was not unlike watching a thriller in which all the action happens off screen. It was great.

Their latest LP, Alter Schwede (according to Google, literally ‘old Swede’ in German, but colloquially more like ‘gosh!’) was commissioned by Heavy Machinery Records as part of The City Of Melbourne’s ambitious Flash Forward arts programme (alongside projects from acts like HTRK and CORIN). Here, MY DISCO put to bed any notion of radical self-erasing. Instead, Alter Schwede contextualises Environment as perhaps a controlled demolition and laying of a new foundation, with important architectural elements salvaged and set aside for later use. Environment, it seems, was meant to be built upon. Alter Schwede, then, is the first phase of new construction.

Like so many things made during the pandemic, Alter Schwede was the product of remote collaboration. In this case, between MY DISCO and Wilsdorf at his Berlin Studio, AndereBaustelle. Straightaway, the difference between this album and its predecessor are clear: there’s just more there there. While by no means a maximal affair, almost everything, including the silence, is thicker. There’s a dub-like density. As an album, Environment was almost diaphanous. It had to be, really. The space between things was so important. Here, the room is generally less empty. There’s more furniture.

There’s a scene in Dario Argento’s Inferno – in fact, it’s the only scene I remember of it – in which a young woman is swimming around a submerged apartment building. Eventually, she’s menaced by a grotesque corpse. Listening to opener ‘The Shore’, that’s the first thing that came to mind. Ultrasound-like whooshes pan around, feedback and synths groan but sometimes shimmer, ritual drums knock out a simple enough beat, and occasional percussive knocks drenched in studio effects punctuate its nearly five-minute runtime. While the space between elements is still well-delineated, it feels filled up, as if with water – a not uncommon quality throughout the record.

Crucially, at key points in Alter Schwede, the band allows the tension they’ve built up to be released, at least to a degree. The pounded piano of ‘Meshes’, appearing just before the album’s halfway point, feels almost cathartic. Elsewhere, on ‘Irreversible’ and ‘Third Place’ especially, the spirit of Vangelis announces its presence, and MY DISCO let themselves broaden their palette to include something lighter, almost hopeful. ‘StVO’ and ‘Folterkammer’, meanwhile, are the nearest thing to bangers the group seem interested in making these days (which is to say, not near at all). The former is a drum-driven oddity whose most prominent feature is an extensive stretch of German-language narration. The latter’s unrelenting kick woozily shifts tempo as a ghostly choir vocalises over the din of what sounds like a boiler being ripped apart by hand. To be clear, they’re both pretty sick.

For years, MY DISCO had a nice place in the same percussion-driven, post-punk cul-de-sac as many of their angular early 00s contemporaries. And to be fair, the records they made during this period were and still are compelling. But nearly twenty years in, they’ve apparently decided that more than a little redecoration is in order. They’ve pulled the whole house down. And like their neighbours Liars, what they’ve rebuilt is altogether more interesting than what was there before. Nearly twenty years in, MY DISCO are making the most fascinating music of their career.