Formed in 1992, Bohren & Der Club of Gore is a German dark ambient jazz band from Mülheim an der Ruhr which originally emerged from the doom metal and grindcore scene. Comprised of Christoph Clöser, Morten Gass, Robin Rodenberg and Thorsten Benning, the band settled as a quartet from the late 1990s onwards until the departure of drummer Thorsten Benning in 2015. Borrowing elements from down-tuned bass-driven death metal, jazz, electronic, drone and ambient music, Bohren & Der Club of Gore have forged a fascinating and consistently slow instrumental signature sound that has no equal on the contemporary music scene. Released on 24 January 2020 last on the PIAS label, Patchouli Blue is the band’s ninth full-length album.
Ganz Leise Kommt die Nacht – The night comes very quietly (Piano Nights – 2014)
Playing like a continuous instrumental score to a film noir or a crime novel, Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s music is constructed around a traditional rock formation of drum, bass and (very sparse) electric guitar and is characterised by an extremely low range bass-driven sound alongside sustained keyboards such as the Mellotron, the Fender Rhodes or the church organ. And while the lead instruments (saxophone, piano or vibraphone) are traditionally associated with the jazz form, improvisation is quasi absent. The music is also underpinned by an omnipresent drone, from thunderstorm rain (“Dead End Angels”) to a spectral choir-like hum (“Midnight Black Earth”, “Constant Fear” etc.). And with a lot of songs below 100bpm – even as low as 61 bpm on “Vigilante Crusade” (Black Earth) for instance – the Bohren & Der Club of Gore repertoire consists exclusively of slow instrumental ballads.
The band’s set of references is primarily cinematic. The music of Bohren & Der Club of Gore has long been associated with Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to David Lynch’s hugely influential Twin Peaks series. The group has also acknowledged the impact of the Italian-style murder mystery thrillers and horror films of the 1970s and their associated soundtracks on their sound.
The jazz origin of the band’s sound can arguably be pinpointed to a selection of tracks from the 1958 Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) score by Miles Davis. “Generique” for instance features the meandering trumpet of Miles Davis over a simple two-chord arrangement for drum, double bass and piano. Saxophonist Barney Wilen sustains the two chords as a drone over the first few bars while additional reverb was added in the final mix. “L’assassinat de Carala” or “Julien dans l’Ascenseur” are also based on a very slow beat where piano and double bass play the same chord/note in unison. With its film noir tropes – a crime of passion, a tense plot, a pessimistic, melancholic and nocturnal atmosphere – all the ingredients of the Bohren imaginary world are already present in Elevator to the Gallows.
Bohren for Beginners
Originally sold in Germany only, subsequent album re-releases on Ipecac Recordings and the PIAS label from the mid-2000s onwards have gradually broadened the band’s reach in the US and Europe respectively. Released in 2016, the double compilation album Bohren for Beginners provides an excellent introduction to the group’s unique sound. Cleverly divided into two sections, “Bohren for Beginners” (CD1) features songs from classic Bohren albums such as Sunset Mission (2000), Black Earth (2002) and Piano Nights (2014).
“Bohren for Advanced” (CD2) features early, rare or unreleased tracks, as well as the only song with vocals in the entire Bohren canon. Performed by American singer Mike Patton, whose vocal range allowed him to match the sub-bass register of the band, “Catch my Heart” (Beileid – 2011) is a cover of a 1985 ballad by German heavy metal band Warlock.
Released in early 2020, Patchouli Blue comes six years after their previous opus Piano Nights. In addition to a fondness for vintage European horror movies, crime literature and the night life cityscape, Bohren & Der Club of Gore have always recycled the countercultural occult themes and macabre imagery pioneered by bands like Black Sabbath in the early 1970s, either in their song titles or artwork covers. Already adorning the cover of Black Earth, the skeleton heads return on the cover artwork of Patchouli Blue. So do the metronomic and deep bass lines, the brushed drums, the smoky saxophone and the chimes of the vibraphone.
Further anchoring their music in the European murder mystery tradition, the official video for “Deine Kusine” makes reference to a violent crime that shook Germany in the late 1950s and was subsequently recounted in literature and cinema. Perhaps revealing a lighter side too, Christoph Clöser’s saxophone, Morten Gass’ piano and Robin Rodenberg’s double bass are all venturing much closer to improvisation on a track like “Sollen es doch Alle wissen” for instance.
Introduced by a two minute-long cavernous drone, Patchouli Blue concludes with a song entitled “Meine Welt ist Schön” (My World is Beautiful). For all its apparent dreary pessimism, urban loneliness and post-industrial gloom, Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s music retains a warm and majestic texture oscillating to a deep bass heartbeat, a never-ending, slow-motion, continental ambient blues.