To The Highest Gods We Know
"In 2012, when Munich trio Colour Haze — guitarist/vocalist Stefan Koglek, bassist Philipp Rasthofer and drummer Manfred Merwald — released their 10th album, the two-disc She Said, it felt like an event. That record was four years in the making, which was the longest split the band had known between two albums, and plagued by technical trouble setting up their own Colour Haze Studio, at which it was, finally, recorded. The challenges they faced made the output even more of a triumph — not to mention the grandiose feel of horn and string-inclusive songs like “Transformation” and “Grace,” respectively, giving the whole affair a boldly progressive feel worthy of following up 2008’s ultra-warm All. It was the best album of 2012. With a last-minute 2014 CD release and 2015 vinyl issue through Koglek‘s Elektrohasch Schallplatten imprint, the 11th Colour Haze full-length, To the Highest Gods We Know, would seem to have no small task in following it up. As a fan of the band — and very much writing this review from that perspective, should there be any doubt — I’m glad to see the three-piece return to their every-two-years-or-so rhythm of releases. The 40-minute/five-track To the Highest Gods We Know arrives without drama, recorded at Colour Haze Studio in Munich on two-inch tape with production by Koglek and Charly Bohaimid, mixed analog on quarter-inch tape, with an accordingly classic sound that for those who’ve followed the band or felt their influence in others both within European heavy psych and beyond it should be reasonably familiar, but as ever, one gets a sense of progression from Colour Haze, their lack of creative stagnation being one of the most key elements in what they do. This album is no exception, despite a somewhat deceptive stripped-down vibe in comparison to its predecessor.
Rather, it is precisely through a back-to-basics feel on the first four cuts (we’ll get to that closer) that To the Highest Gods We Know avoids the trap of being the “follow-up” to She Said. It dodges the bullet completely, and where She Said made its grandest statements in flourishes of arrangement, songs like opener “Circles” and the instrumental centerpiece “Überall” do precisely the opposite. They represent Colour Haze rediscovering their processes in this new space of their own studio. The warmth of tone from Koglek and Rasthofer, the steady roll and ever-classy style of Merwald arrive with an exploratory freshness throughout To the Highest Gods We Know because, essentially, with this record, Colour Haze are re-learning how to be Colour Haze. It’s not like they took four-plus years to build their own studio and they’re going to go record somewhere else. They’ve made themselves a home — like they did before with their own label — and these songs sound like the process by which they’re getting acclimated to it. I wouldn’t say that makes them tentative, because any band 11 albums deep into their career has enough of a sense of what they want to not really worry about it, but it definitely makes them relaxed, which of course suits their laid back heavy sound just fine. Launching the album, “Circles” (8:27) begins with a sweet hum of ambient feedback, Koglek‘s guitar swelling in before starting the first line, simple and soon joined by Rasthofer and Merwald. Relatively speaking, there is no grand intro. The first verse is underway by the two-minute mark, and it proves to be the inviting nature of the song itself that carries the listener into the flow that continues over subsequent tracks. A linear build plays out subtly past the first verse and into the second, the guitar and bass working around each other while Merwald holds together a fluid nod, and just as they pass the halfway point, “Circles” kicks into a fuller riff marked out by the inclusion of either horns or flutes — both appear on the album and there is a rush of volume surrounding — before opening to its payoff riff, a lumbering air-pusher that still keeps to the atmosphere preceding, and giving way to a proggy turn that brings back the wind instruments.
Guitar and bass work through lead lines and quiet down before, exploding once more to full breadth, the flute coming forward and following the guitar line for a few measures to close out, a quick sustained note fading and bringing in the chunky riff of the shorter, more verse/chorus-based “Paradise.” One is immediately reminded of “This” from the last album, and “Paradise” serves a similar function in backing the opener, but is a more memorable standout, and puts to welcome use one of Colour Haze‘s signature riff progressions that has been molded and repurposed as a cross-album theme since their 2004 self-titled and the title-track to 2006’s Tempel. Here, layers of harmonized vocals ride the song’s apex, which crashes to another quick finish and gives way to the soft noodling at the start of “Überall,” an 8:45 exploratory jam that provides one of To the Highest Gods We Know‘s most central moments of atmosphere. Christian Hawellek guests on Doepfer modular synth, which adds texture to the patterned but still natural movement of “Überall,” shifting from its softer opening noodling to a more rhythmically active build of tension that as they approach four minutes in, Colour Haze open to a bigger-sounding lead that establishes a tradeoff they’ll soon make again, the synth lending an extra current of melody in swelling and receding in the mix with the guitar, bass and drums. Just past seven minutes in, another riff takes hold that, if it was on anyone else’s record I’d call it “very Colour Haze,” and serves as the foundation for the closing movement of the track, which delightfully plods out its ending before a final crash gives way to humming feedback and what one assumes is the end of side A on the vinyl. To the Highest Gods We Know‘s most progressive inclusions await in “Call” and the closing title-track, but a song like “Überall” emphasizes just how much Colour Haze‘s sound is their own as they approach the 20-year mark since the release of their first album, 1995’s Chopping Machine (discussed here), and how even working in familiar terrain, the raw chemistry between Rasthofer, Merwald and Koglek is more than enough to carry them.
That might not be a revelation at this point. Colour Haze‘s discography is full of such examples, but perhaps what distinguishes “Überall” is its efficiency, the smoothness of its execution and how essential it makes all of its eight minutes while still keeping a laid back, unhurried mood. With “Call,” the band shifts into a somewhat different vibe, Rasthofer moving to Hammond M3 to set a foundation for Koglek‘s resonant, fuzzed-out opening guitar lines. I’ve said on many occasions that Koglek‘s guitar has the finest, richest tone since Jimi Hendrix, and I dare you to listen to the first few minutes of “Call” and tell me otherwise. With just organ and guitar as a bed, the verse begins. Drums and bass show up later, but “Call” reads like a contemplative aside, and it’s a peaceful, spiritual moment that pushes deep into psychedelic moods without actually sounding all that tripped out in terms of effects or synth, etc. Vocals are calm to the point of serenity in the three verses, which smoothly transition out of the last verse and into the riff that will, after a brief pause, introduce Merwald‘s drums and Rasthofer‘s bass along with a heavier thrust and provide the instrumental apex of “Call” and the LP as a whole, the Hammond humming out behind all the while as Koglek‘s guitar leads the build forward in measure after measure until dropping out quickly to the start of “To the Highest Gods We Know,” which is Colour Haze‘s most experimental track to date. It is the only song on the record that carries its name to pass 10 minutes in length, and in its arrangement, it brazenly moves out of the band’s stylistic wheelhouse while holding firm to their trademark rhythmic sensibilities. With strings arranged and conducted by Mathis Nitschke, an intro of Spanish-style acoustic guitar gradually comes forward to open backed by sustained string notes, setting immediately the texture that defines the progression of the song itself.
It feels almost out of its time. Completely instrumental, “To the Highest Gods We Know,” as it unfolds its central balance of acoustic guitar and strings, sounds almost like the sonic experiment that would’ve lead the band to later produce “Grace” from She Said by further incorporating those elements into their established pattern of songwriting. Of course, the timing is reversed, but the arrangement of “To the Highest Gods We Know” is that much bolder then, because essentially what Colour Haze have done with it is abandoned that established pattern. Guitar and strings swell between the third and fourth minute, quiet down and introduce a percussion line that’s almost a march, to which guitar plucking notes in vague time. The strings soon return to play off, and where so much of the band’s approach is about melody — and there’s a melody here, make no mistake — the primary impression of To the Highest Gods We Know‘s title-track is its rhythm. It becomes a wash of rhythm as the strings kick back in and build toward open, distinctly Colour Haze-esque crashes, a winding line of guitar following. They recede and then swell again in a similar fashion, hitting a crescendo more about intensity than volume or tonal thickness, before dropping out once more to intricate acoustic guitar, nature sounds captured by former drummer Tim Höfer and the somewhat tense, delightfully odd fadeout that closes the album, reinforcing the strange note on which Colour Haze have decided to cap To the Highest Gods We Know, their finale as much an offering as it is a statement that as much as they have established a modus for themselves, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to push beyond it every now and again.
The reminder leaves a particularly resonant impression since this is their 11th album, and with four songs before it that one could look at in comparison to She Said and consider them scaled back. But then, To the Highest Gods We Know has its stretches of flute, of strings and of organ. It has its flourishes of arrangement. It has a progressive feel and, again, as bold an experiment as I’ve ever heard from Colour Haze, so maybe it’s not “scaled back” so much as it’s tighter and a more pointed execution derived from some of the ideas that showed themselves the last time out. As Colour Haze settle into their new home — their studio — their first album since its completion feels appropriately like a beginning point, almost as though, having finally escaped from under the woes in creating the last record, they’re ready to go back and rediscover what it propelling them forward. Eleven albums in and it sounds like a debut? Not quite. The fluidity and chemistry developed over the years between Koglek, Rasthofer and Merwald, and the appeal of To the Highest Gods We Know‘s familiar parts aren’t to be understated, but if it proves anything, their latest outing proves that they haven’t yet said everything they have to say, and depending on where they go from here, we might look back on To the Highest Gods We Know as the beginning point for a new era of the band, similar to how their self-titled worked off 2003’s Los Sounds de Krauts 2LP at the dawning of Elektrohasch. However that works out and whatever else it might represent, To the Highest Gods We Know is distinctly Colour Haze. It confirms that definition even as it expands and refines the meaning." - The Obelisk