RPWL Creates Arresting New Album
The German atmospheric music masters are back with "Crime Scene," a fantastic release that explores dark themes.
Hello, and thanks for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. This week’s issue should appeal to fans of Pink Floyd, because one of the great things to come out of that iconic band’s success is that it inspired a lot of people to pick up instruments and try to mimic their sound. Many of those bands, such as Airbag out of Norway, have developed their own personal styles that are Pink Floyd-adjacent.
This week’s subject is one of those kinds of bands. RPWL has been one of my favorite German bands since the early 2000s. They’ve not only played music with the feel and mood that Pink Floyd created (while not being a copy), but they’ve even covered some of the band’s music. RPWL’s versions of Pink Floyd’s “Cymbaline” and Syd Barrett’s “Opel” are outstanding.
RPWL has a new album on the way and the quality of their music is as good as ever. I jumped at the chance to discuss it with lead singer and keyboard player Yogi Lang.
Let’s get to that story.
It was around 2003 when I discovered that there were several great online radio stations that were playing fantastic, modern progressive rock songs by bands from around the world that I’d never heard of before. One of my favorite discoveries from those early days of listening to online prog stations was a German band called RPWL.
I’m not sure which of their songs I heard first, but I discovered “Hole in the Sky” and “Farewell” — both from their 2000 debut album, God Has Failed — right around the same time.
These were both amazing songs and I immediately bought their first CD and the second, Trying to Kiss the Sun, as well, even before I’d heard a note of the latter. The band’s music displayed an obvious Pink Floyd influence, but the guitar tone was different, the vocals had their own unique sound, and RPWL (mostly) didn’t use the same approach to keyboards. There was something about the band’s atmospheric approach, use of space, and willingness to let fewer notes on the guitar say more that prompted the comparisons, in my view, but after just one listen to God Has Failed the influence was unmistakable.
RPWL quickly became one of my favorite German bands in any genre, and I followed their career forward from their 2003 compilation album, Stock, to their third album, World Through My Eyes, in 2005, and beyond. The band splintered off a couple of side projects and solo albums over the years. Notable among these are guitarist Kalle Wallner’s band, Blind Ego, bassist Chris Postl’s Parzival’s Eye project, and vocalist/keyboardist Yogi Lang’s No Decoder solo album (2010).
Postl has since left the band.
The band’s name was an afterthought. After being told they couldn’t release an album without a name, they quickly just picked the last initial of each of the four original members. Only the W and the L from that initial lineup remain in the band.
“So Chris (Postl) at that time asked me if I did the order because of ABWH — Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe,” Lang said. “Maybe? I still don't know. They were crazy times.”
The current lineup includes original members Wallner and Lang, plus bassist Markus Grützner and drummer Marc Turiaux. RPWL has released seven albums to date and album No. 8, Crime Scene, will drop tomorrow from the band’s own label, Gentle Art of Music.
The music on Crime Scene is both identifiably RPWL and yet there is something fresh about these six new songs. The album itself is a meditation on crime — especially violent crime — and the subject of what makes someone evil or do evil things. Lang said the subjects of the songs on Crime Scene are a mix of actual cases he read about and just overall thoughts on good vs. evil.
Lang wasn’t exactly sure where the seed of the dark theme of the album came from, although he’d wanted to do something about the theme of good and evil for a while. The music demos from Wallner may have made the time right for it.
“I think Kalle came with ideas for the new album. I listened to that, and it was, I think it was a bit darker (than the previous release, Tales From Outer Space),” Lang said. “All the ideas were dark. Maybe it’s…I mean, here in Europe we have a war right in front of of our doors. Maybe the times were darker. I think his ideas were darker and led me to this. The crime scene thing I had in mind for at least a couple of years. I wanted to do an album about this good and bad thing.”
The album kicks off with “Victim of Desire,” an eight-minute lead single that sets the mood, with sinister music and the sound of footsteps running from left to right in your headphones. It’s right out of a suspense movie soundtrack. Then the song kicks off with soaring guitar from Wallner over the top of rising, textured keyboards. There are some unusual vocals in a couple of places in the song — perhaps representative of the manic thoughts of a killer — and then the song settles into the kind of atmospheric, Pink Floyd-y music that RPWL does so well. Lang’s vocals are warm despite the subject matter. After Wallner’s exquisite solo, there’s another instance of the unusual vocals from early in the song.
There’s a dark beauty in the music and “Victim of Desire” does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the record.
“In this song we tried to put ourselves into the world of a serial killer,” Lang said. “And in our case, it was a guy that went through a period of social isolation because of something happening in the past, whatever it is. We wanted to bring the whole record into this mood, to get everyone into this crime scene thing. It’s not a real case, but it could be.”
“Red Rose” is a song about a true crime case. It tells the bizarre love story of Carl Tänzler, a radiology technologist in Key West, Florida in the early 1900s, who fell for a patient who then died. Tänzler exhumed and lived with her corpse for several years.
The song begins with a gorgeous acoustic guitar opening from Wallner. The acoustic part formed the basis of the song and, as more instruments join in, it’s punctuated with some electric guitar notes with echo-y effects. The song has a dreamy feel to it, and goes out the way it came in, with that acoustic guitar as the focus. The song’s vibe captures the love story part of Tänzler’s strange-yet-true tale.
“We took the sweetness of the story,” Lang explained. “He fell in love with a young patient. And I always had this image in my head of her with curly hair and a rose in her hair. He really fell in love. He couldn’t help her. She died. And he couldn’t get over her death. So one year later, he stole the corpse out of the grave. Okay, to be honest, now the story is not that sweet anymore. So it’s very bizarre, but I love that the song is written as a love song. It’s this red rose I had in mind. I don’t know why. It’s hard to say. Was he that kind of guy before? Would he have stolen a corpse without falling in love and losing the love? I don't know.”
“A Cold Spring Day in ‘22” is the album’s second single and the shortest song on the record at just under four-and-a-half minutes. It starts with almost a kind of a music box-type keyboard pattern and then an acoustic guitar kicks in to form the basis of the song. An electric guitar enters and mimics the earlier music box sequence. Lang sings ominous lyrics about footprints in the snow coming from the woods and noises in the attic.
The story behind the song is a true crime case that happened early last year, not far from where he lives. For the lyrics, Lang said he put himself in the victims’ shoes.
“This family was killed. It’s still unsolved,” he said. “When you’re at home and close the door, there’s something that makes you feel safe. And this is exactly what they did. They went home, closed the door, and they must have had this safe feeling, when suddenly someone came and murdered the whole family.”
Something’s in the air
Why should we even care?
Our home’s safe and secure
The juxtaposition of the brutality in the events in the lyrics and the beauty of the song works well. It might be my favorite song on the album as a result.
“Life in a Cage” starts with a simple drum machine pattern, then an ominous guitar chord ushers in a soft section with an echo on Lang’s vocal. The emphasis is on atmosphere and there’s an electronically enhanced vocal that joins Lang’s main vocal line on the chorus.
Lang said trying to put himself in the mind of a violent man led to the lyrical content of “Life in a Cage.” It was inspired in part by his research into crime statistics.
“Violence against women is increasing. I wasn’t aware. I always thought that society is getting better and (more) open minded,” Lang said. “ I thought it’s really worth (writing) a song about that. Because how do you feel when this violence takes place? This was the thought — it must be a life in a cage, because there’s always this kind of circle that you’re not coming out of it. So, I think it’s going to need a lot of power to get out of this circle and to open the door and say, ‘I am leaving.’ This is obviously not that easy.”
“King of the World is the album’s epic track at nearly 13 minutes long. It starts, interestingly enough, with a simple bass line from Grützner and the band builds on it. One of Lang’s signature keyboard riffs is an early highlight in the song and there’s a Wallner guitar riff that is vaguely reminiscent of Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio,” without it being a ripoff.
The epic is unsurprisingly the most overtly progressive-sounding song on the album, but it also features some of Lang’s best vocal work on Crime Scene. He doesn’t have the widest vocal range you’ll find, but Lang’s voice is expressive, smooth, and easy on the ears.
Lyrically, “King of the World” is another thought exercise song rather than a true crime case. It deals with the themes of absolute power, corruption, and how even a seemingly benevolent dictator is still a dictator.
“Every Utopia you’re trying to build is ending in a kind of totalitarian structure,” Lang said. “The picture I had is, even when I was a kid, I thought if I was king of the world, everything (would get) better, of course. I think everybody thinks that way. And what you’re doing is you’re putting away the bad king and now you’re the good king. But you’re only the good king for you, and not for any others, because they might think another way. So, maybe this is some kind of a trick of humankind. Maybe this is the reason why nothing gets better in hundreds of years or even thousands of years. We’re maybe not made for having a world in peace.”
The closing track, “Another Life Beyond Control,” is another song inspired by a real case — German serial killer Karl Denke, who was active in the early 1900s and was believed to have eaten his victims and even sold their flesh as pickled “pork.” A would-be victim who escaped Denke reported being attacked, but his report was disregarded due to Denke’s standing in the community. The victim was actually arrested for vagrancy, before a further investigation eventually resulted in the killer’s arrest.
“That is another really scary story,” Lang said with a laugh. “Even when they caught him, and it turned out that there were 30 or 40 victims, and they found pots of human fat, and he obviously ate them, but nobody could believe it because he was the devoted citizen from your neighborhood. How could you see that there is something going on, that he was a bad person? It’s an interesting thing.”
Musically, Wallner built the song on a riff using an unusual effect on his guitar. It’s a bit fuzzy and the bass is doubled underneath it to give it more heft. The song goes through some dreamy passages among its twists and turns during its nearly eight-minute run time.
I don’t know what it is about RPWL, but Lang’s voice blends perfectly with the music, which is exemplified here, and his simple keyboard riffs somehow give the song exactly what they need. “Another Life Beyond Control” is the perfect album closer from among these six songs.
By the end of Crime Scene, listeners will have heard another masterpiece by the German atmospheric masters, and an album that is sure to be in contention for my top prog rock album of the year.
RPWL rarely breaks any new ground, and the band doesn’t on this new record, yet this veteran group understands how to write good songs and always seems to find interesting new corners of the ground they’ve already covered. It’s enough to keep their songs interesting and identifiable in their growing catalog. The 45-minute length of Crime Scene lends itself both to vinyl and to making you want to immediately start it over at the beginning.
While the dark and often disturbing lyrical subject matter may turn off some listeners — perhaps especially in “A Cold Spring Day in ‘22” — there is tremendous beauty in these songs. Reading the back stories of the three real-life crime cases presents a new perspective when listening to the album, and one comes away with at least an appreciation for how much contemplation Lang put into the songs. The desire to understand what drives a person to extreme violence and what goes through their minds before, during, and after such acts, is a fascinating topic and one that Lang ultimately felt was worth exploring.
“I hope we could take them through this emotional journey that I think is not that easy, but it’s worth doing it,” Lang said of those who listen to the album. “It’s such an interesting thing. I really hope that I could give people a push to think about what is really good, what is really bad. I love to get an explanation for things. I think I’m just this kind of guy. You have to explain things. Maybe people can follow us on this journey and get a bit more interested in it.”
For more information about RPWL, visit RPWL.net and you can order their music through their label’s site at GentleArtOfMusic.com. Crime Scene will be available on CD and several different colors of vinyl — signed or unsigned.
Victim of Desire (8:17)
Red Rose (5:35)
A Cold Spring Day in ‘22 (4:20)
Life in a Cage (6:10)
King of the World (12:50)
Another Life Beyond Control (7:50)
For my complete interview with Yogi Lang, check out the video below or download / stream Episode 102 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to talking about the new record, Yogi discussed his early musical influences, forming RPWL and why the band ended up with that name, starting his own record label, and more.
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