For a few minutes, let’s try and remove Colour Haze’s 10th studio outing, She Said, from the context in which it was created. Those who’ve followed the groundbreaking German heavy psych trio’s progress over the time since their last album, 2008’s All, was released know She Said is a long time coming, the Munich trio having hit technical snags enough for three records, let alone one. They built and rebuilt a studio in the process, but as the sounds of the finished versions of She Said’s eight component tracks are sweet enough to make one forget nearly anything, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to pull the record out of the tumult and examine it on its own level. Colour Haze in 2012 is a different band than was Colour Haze in 2008. Not in the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Stefan Koglek, bassist Philipp Rasthofer and drummer Manfred Merwald, which has remained consistent since 1998, but in plenty else. Of course, they’ve played shows all along the four-year span between records – European touring, stints at Duna Jam and Roadburn, etc. – but even outside the band, the context in which She Said arrives is different than that which met All when it came out through Koglek’s Elektrohasch Schallplatten imprint, itself a driving force in European heavy psych. The climate was different. Colour Haze had been on a hot streak of genre-defining records that included 2003’s Los Sounds de Krauts, 2004’s Colour Haze and 2006’s Tempel, but even All couldn’t anticipate the explosion of bands who have emerged in the subsequent years who’ve taken influence from Colour Haze’s tonally warm, jam-ready aesthetic. With She Said, they emerge as leaders of a scene they helped create. Whether it’s younger acts like Sungrazer, The Machine and Wight or their peers as much as they have any, Colour Haze have had a pervasive effect on their surrounding European scene – one can hear elements of theirs in American bands like Elder as well – and She Said is their first album to be released since that scene around them solidified as a group of bands touring and issuing works of their own. So even in the timing, much-hindered though it has been, She Said captures Colour Haze at a special moment in their career.
For reference, here is the full tracklisting:
1. She Said (18:42)
2. This (2:12)
3. Transformation (16:53)
1. Breath (12:05)
2. Slowdown (3:57)
3. Stand In… (8:27)
4. Rite (5:46)
5. Grace (10:58)
But though the album arrives with twice the longest stretch between records since this lineup came together, it’s important to remember that these songs have likely been in the works for two years already. Pieces may have been added and expanded along the way, but stylistically, She Said shouldn’t be expected to be any more of a leap from All than All was from Tempel, or Tempel from the self-titled, and so forth. However, Colour Haze have always shown a distinct drive toward progression, have never failed to evolve from one collection to the next, and that applies as well to She Said, which though it seems to work in a lot of the same moods and atmospheres as All, is relentless in its pursuit of taking those ideas further. This is true in the very manner of the album’s construction. She Said is the first 2CD Colour Haze outing since Los Sounds de Krauts, and as it clocks in at just under 82 minutes, it barely crosses that line of fitting onto one disc. The mere fact that a song like “This” was included demonstrates the purposefulness of the choice. By splitting the album onto two CDs, Colour Haze have not only made an already difficult production process that much more complicated, but they’ve effectively mirrored the necessary disc-swap of a double-vinyl release (which of course She Said is also getting). Where many other 2LPs can fit onto one CD, She Said forces you to – if you’re going to listen to it on tangible media – take an active physical role in the process one way or another if you want to hear the full thing, which you doubtless do, otherwise you wouldn’t be listening in the first place. To that end, I’ll add that as someone who’s generally not a supporter of the idea of double-albums – they’re a given in the world of post-CD-era vinyl, but in terms of non-concert CDs, I’m not a fan but for a rare few exceptions; rarely in my view does a release of any kind call for more than an hour’s runtime – She Said justifies the indulgence sonically, and if one needs a reason Colour Haze might want to include as much material on the album as possible, one need only reread the first sentence of this paragraph to find it.
Not only that, but the two component discs of She Said also set up individual progressions, starting off slowly with the opening title-track and more immediately with “Breath” on the second disc, but each winding up in a grand and progressive exploration of a more evolved Colour Haze scope, “Transformation” closing disc one with the inclusion of a horn section and “Grace” culminating the second disc and She Said as a whole with a string arrangement playing off Koglek’s guitars, which themselves are layered acoustics and electrics over backwards swirls similar to those that showed up on the All title-track. Though it brims with this mastery of the heavy psychedelic form and clearly knows its place in the current European milieu, She Said is no less laid back and unpretentious than Colour Haze has ever been, whatever the depths of the arrangements or the complexities of the structure.
The album commences humbly, so quietly you’re not sure it’s there, with windchimes and rustling leaves, setting up a slow, patient arrival indicative of none of the frustration of the process by which She Said came together. Each member arrives in a slow fade, Koglek, Rasthofer and Merwald, and in its first minute, “She Said” has gracefully swept off. Soft humming tops the still-quiet progression beginning at 1:23, but there’s still a long way to go in the near-19-minute track before it reaches its full burst. The foremost guitar line drops momentarily as piano is introduced – time doesn’t matter anymore – and the build continues amid engrossing swirls of melody, gradually getting louder to smother everything around it. Past four minutes, Merwald hits his snare, and the progression changes and just a couple seconds later, Koglek opens into a fuzzy sweep of a lead (is that a whistling theremin underneath?) that shows there’s been no diminishing of his stunning tone, either in the lead or the crunchier riff that follows. It’s still instrumental, but there’s a quick shift into a more uptempo section underscored by fantastic fills from Rasthofer and Merwald alike, the verse riff is introduced, and as “She Said” crosses the eight-minute line, Koglek delivers the opening titular line of the album: “She said your reality is not determined by what you see, but by what you look out for.”
Koglek answers back, and the band cycles through another verse and break, leading to an instrumental chorus with effective breaks from Rastofer and Merwald over which the guitar continues, and then the second of the song’s extended instrumental jams takes hold, first with a pair of solos cutting through the fully-formed and fully-thick fuzz surrounding and then smoothly into a percussion-led jam that begins shortly before 11 minutes in, Merwald leading the way on his kit with a host of other instruments following and playing off the central rhythm. Guitar and bass persist, spacing out, holding the rhythm, riffing all the while, but that added percussion doesn’t go away however swallowed up it might get in the other instrumentation. Koglek takes a bluesy solo given a near-salsa feel by the constant rhythmic throb, and they break to a jazzier progression, the whistle eventually returning, that once more comes to a righteous head, and then suddenly, they break back into the verse and tie the entire song together in the span of four lines in the last two minutes, the instrumental chorus now serving as the starting point of the outro progression. If it seems a grandiose opening, it is. “She Said” is the longest song on the album that shares its name (immediate points), but also one of the most immersive, and it’s fitting that after it, they should move directly into the 2:12 “This,” which begins with – of all things – a false start.
Whatever richness they might craft tonally or however vivid might be the mood their songs create, there’s no substitute for a little humor, and “This” has that, Koglek introducing a funky riff that Merwald and Rasthofer join before the whole thing cuts off. A few words are said in German and they start again, the same way, done right, with keys joining in. It’s a brief, lighthearted jam, but not at all without its own sense of movement, getting heavier and allowing the keyboard to take a solo between thickly-riffed sections. It grooves for just long enough to make me wonder why some songs get to be 19 minutes long and others are cut short, but is stopped at the 2:12 mark and “Transformation” begins with the sounds of ambient conversation and waves. If it’s not Duna Jam, it might as well be. “Transformation” swirls its way to life with backwards guitar between these sounds, sort of smoothly shouldering its way through the ambient noise while not so much competing with the waves as creating some of its own. Even backwards, the melodies are beautiful, Hendrixian, and when Rasthofer introduces the bassline at 2:15, it’s the foundation on which the track begins its build. The guitar continues its run of loops, though a riff is also layered in, and a lead line emerges to focus the rhythm, all three members of the band seeming to weave together for a time before Koglek takes off with another solo and Rasthofer and Merwald skillfully maintain the groove, each giving no less a show of their personality in the process.
Already here, five minutes into the 16:53 song, the short breather that “This” offered makes sense, giving some notion of simplicity to contrast the breadth of what’s happening on either side of it. “Transformation” settles into a driving rhythm that’ll be not unfamiliar to Colour Haze fans – something else in shares in common with the album finale in “Grace” – and continues to add to its instrumental push, the waves seeming to reemerge after eight minutes in, until a solo signals the culmination and they step down into a quiet moment of ambient guitar that seems a direct nod to the song “Alberto Migré,” which closed Argentinian trio Los Natas’ first album, Delmar, in 1996. Koglek played on Los Natas’ 2004 München Sessions and released it through Elektrohasch, so it’s not unreasonable to think he’d want to pay homage to such an endearing and memorable moment in their work, but even if the subtle, sandy echo in his guitar for this later section of “Transformation” is a coincidence, the sweet, wistful effect is largely the same, and it makes an excellent basis for the triumph that ensues, Colour Haze once more sweeping to life in a sudden turn, this time accompanied by chimes, and launching on the build that will bring the first disc of the album to its end over the course of the next five minutes. In this process, as ever, they are dynamic – there are ebbs and flows – but when Koglek hints at the line that will soon be adopted by horns at 13:22, it’s hard not to get a chill up the spine, even if you don’t know what’s coming. All momentum forward, they break into a part that seems at first to be derived from the traditional wedding march (“Here comes the bride,” and so on), Merwald engaged in what seems like a ceaseless battle against his already bloodied kit, and give new life to the last couple minutes of “Transformation,” joining their purposes at 14:37 to embark on a riff that’s downright poppy. Cue the horns at 15:01 and suddenly the song can’t get loud enough. How something can come so utterly out of nowhere in the last two minutes and still work in context of the song as a whole is beyond me.
Perhaps that’s the effect of Koglek having previously introduced the line – the cleverness of doing so emerging in the fact that by the times the horns come in, you already have some sense of where they’re going and are thus more apt to follow – but as the guitar and the brass play off each other in a brilliant revival of classic prog rock methodology repurposed into earthy psychedelic bliss, I don’t even want to let go of the moment to think about it. Merwald gives some sense of this being the final stretch by cutting to half-time on the drums, but for a time the horns and guitar keep going, and there’s a few seconds yet where it seems like they might pick it back up, but they don’t and the “Transformation” meets its end in a ring out that’s interrupted by bumped-into guitar strings, sticks being put down and a few words in German. The impression is that it was all done live in the studio, and maybe it was, I don’t know, but the mere fact that at this point Colour Haze have moved from a windchimed porch to a bathroom stall to a beach to their own recording outpost should say something about the reach of She Said’s first 38 minutes. The ending of “Transformation” provides an apex for the song itself, but also for the first disc as a whole, and stands as one of Colour Haze’s most impressive instrumental works to date. On first listen, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think they won’t be able to top it with the second part of the album.
The short version – because at this point, you’re entitled to it – is they do.
Interesting to note that though She Said is broken into two discs, the break is not clean and the discs do not each represent a half of the whole. This is all the more reason to think of it as individual progressions serving one larger one rather than only one large one playing out over an extended field, and with disc one at 38 minutes and disc two at 43, it’s yet another display of the consciousness behind Colour Haze’s album structure. If the four-minute “Slowdown” had been moved from the second disc to the first, they’d be closer to even time-wise and even in number of tracks, but as that song serves a similar purpose to “This” in offering contrast to the grander movement in 12:05 disc-two opener “Breath,” it’s rightfully positioned as it is. Still, with more songs and a longer runtime, when taken on its own, disc two also has a more open feel to it, perhaps more directly in answer to All than was She Said’s first installment, though as “Breath” is so quick to introduce Koglek’s vocals – they haven’t been heard since he was singing in the can at the end of “This” – I’m more inclined to see it as part of the linear flow of She Said as a whole than anything else. Colour Haze’s jammed-out vibes are still there, but Koglek sets a rhythm on the muted strings of his guitar similar to how “Moon” from All began – fittingly, the beat is more complex – and Rasthofer soon joins on bass. Merwald comes in with a long perfectly-timed fill, and barely a minute has passed before the first crooning verse begins. Soft desert rock lines are plucked in a quick bridge and it’s not until the second verse that it’s really apparent that Koglek’s not the only one singing. “Breath” winds up a duet, the companion vocals starting off soft but eventually coming to the fore even more than those of the guitarist after an instrumental break that develops a riff, rides it out for a while, and then transitions into one of She Said’s most pastoral stretches. The two vocals bring about a sense of peace, and it’s not the first time Colour Haze have had a guest appearance, but it works remarkably well in “Breath,” the song careening into and out of verses and instrumental passages with fluidity that would be eerie were it not so lovely.
Just before six minutes in, right around its halfway point, the guitars kick in and a heavier riff is introduced that brings up a thicker bed for the vocals, which in turn are by necessity more forward. For the most part, Colour Haze (and Koglek particularly, as he’s the one singing) have been content to let the instruments carry these kinds of passages on their own – something they’ve proven well up to the task of doing – but as the singing joins the build, the affect is even more engrossing. There is a long, guitar-led instrumental passage that accounts for most of the last five minutes of “Breath,” introduced by the same riff that signaled the heavier change in the first place, which comes on somewhat changed with a solo layered over it, and the trio moves with confidence into a winding, jazzy groove with Rasthofer keeping pace with Koglek every step of the way. Merwald doesn’t falter either, and if you’ve ever had any question as the appeal of a power trio, Colour Haze provide clear response, deftly, smoothly shifting into a build topped with Sabbath-style psychedelic lead work before hitting the reset button at 10:43 and chugging into a massive, simple, slowed-down stoner riff that gives the entire song preceding a groovy culmination. Rasthofer’s bass is as thick as I’ve ever heard it, and there’s a short break to signal the end coming, but other than that, the flourishes are gone, the layered in leads, the extra instrumentation, any of it. Not that they had to say so, but the ending of “Breath” confirms that the band still knows the power a straightforward riffy groove can have when put to its best use.
And its sense of immediacy carries into “Slowdown” as well, which in terms of its pacing and groove is anything but. Merwald keeps an undercurrent of 32nd notes on his hi-hat that adds to the frenetic energy in Rasthofer’s bassline, and as Koglek belts out a boogie verse while holding back on the guitar until the jagged, almost garage rock-type chorus, the song sounds like an absolute blast. Guest vocals return for the thicker second chorus, and Colour Haze move to a lead-led (ha!) jam that’s no less natural for its course seeming scripted. The transition back to the hi-hat, to the verse, is seamless and by the time the chorus comes back on, its hook is both telegraphed and welcome, “Slowdown” giving a show of classic rock songwriting the likes of which the band rarely concerns itself these days. The pattern repeats as they shift back into a jammy break and slowly fade the track out, making way for the more singular, linear build of the 8:54 “Stand In…,” which serves as the centerpiece of disc two. As with “Breath,” they begin “Stand In…” more immediately than either “She Said” or “Transformation,” and that lends the song a straightforward feel even if what ensues is plenty ethereal. Koglek tops quiet bass and soft but moving drums with a soothing lead groove that steps its way upward over the course of the next two minutes and as Merwald sets up a build on his toms, it’s clear something big is coming, but they delay impact some, transitioning into synth-accompanied soloing and a quieter stretch of jamming. There may be more than one guitar at work, or it may be Koglek layering, but they pull together for a heavier low end thrust at 3:51, the fuzz rising like a wave crashing on the shore during the beginning of “Transformation.” The overall rhythm is familiar in the context of Colour Haze’s past work, but they let “Stand In…” become its own expedition, ranging for a while and then pulling back to the riff from which they came, then adding more guitar, more bass to it.
One almost expects vocals on “Stand In…” if for no other reason than “Slowdown” and “Breath” both had them, but Colour Haze instead let the keys – it’s either a mellotron or something aping a mellotron sound – carry across a drawn-out melody starting at 6:31 that pays off the prior build. The melody and the strength of the rhythm beneath it will bring “Stand In…” to its finish, but they’re patient with it over the next couple minutes, Koglek jamming out leads underneath while Rasthofer and Merwald keep the rhythm going, the guitar, bass and drums eventually meeting up for a faster, more straightforward push – Merwald moves to the hi-hat – before going back to the solo-caked apex and eventually stopping the whole song on what sounds like a sudden decision to do so. It’s a little bit less clear where the listener is supposed to be at that point than it was, say, with the serenity of “She Said” starting off the record, but the birdsong subtly included to the beginning of “Rite” is all the answer necessary. Acoustics and double-bass are introduced in an otherwise straightforward verse, and though the song doesn’t move especially fast, neither does it really allow one to keep up with it – there’s just enough to have to get a handle on at any one of its earliest moments so as to make doing so a challenge. It’s a contrast to the patience they’ve shown elsewhere, but on the other hand, we’re also more than an hour into She Said, and if Colour Haze are going to start offering surprises – which they are – “Rite” throwing the listener off guard only makes that more effective.
An insistent, punctuated groove meets with fuzz guitar and a mounting sense of tension, and at 2:55, Koglek layers “doo-doo doo-do-doo” vocals for a chorus that are both rhythmically memorable and just weird enough to highlight the song’s progressive nature. Colour Haze can pull this off – they’ve done it before – and Merwald’s freakout drums behind the intertwining acoustic and electric guitars and Rasthofer’s bass only make the vibe more quizzical. Acoustics come to the fore, heavy guitars come to the fore, the chorus returns, they stop, they start again — the guitar sounds an awful lot like a didgeridoo — and once more, when it’s done, they give a couple seconds’ silence prior to the first chords of “Grace,” a song the task of which is undeniably huge in having to not only sum up the second of the two discs on which it plays out, but the entirety of She Said before it. To be fitting for its role as the last track on the first Colour Haze record in four years, it has to at once affirm the band’s sprawl of influence and expand it, bringing together familiar ideas with elements used as they never have been before. It has to be new and old while also fitting with the rest of She Said’s already expansive atmosphere. I’ve yet to give “Grace” a listen on headphones and not have tears come to my eyes when the strings kick in.
If I had another word for it besides beautiful, I’d use that, but I don’t. Where “Transformation” teased its “outside” aspects – i.e. the horns – but kept the actual reveal a surprise for toward the very end, “Grace” makes no such efforts to obscure its scope. Rather, true to its name, the song unfolds itself almost immediately, acoustic guitar strum setting a bed for layers of violin and cello, which are introduced at 50 seconds in amid a harder guitar strum and immediately set about an arrangement that’s both signature Colour Haze in its patterning and wholly new, plucking strings and playing off Koglek’s guitar, rising and falling and beautiful and natural all the while. It’s so fucking perfect. At 2:48, a quicker strum signals the next movement and shortly thereafter a backwards electric lead is layered over the acoustics – the strings gone for the moment – and Merwald comes in on the drums with Rasthofer and a heavier riff emerges not entirely dissimilar from the ultimate triumph of “Fire” from Tempel, but like if that riff was a statue and you stuck that statue in a museum also made of marble and itself just a bigger work of art. The track is floating at this point, a Beatlesian march that seems to be running a parallel line from an imaginary “here” to a very real “somewhere else,” and through all the swirling layers of guitar, forwards and back, the original acoustic line remains. Koglek, Rasthofer and Merwald prove an orchestra on their own, and the feeling isn’t so much sad as the progression gradually gets deconstructed as joyful for what might follow, Koglek’s leads showing no intention of letting the jam end even as the toms drop out amid a cymbal crash and the bass is gone and the acoustic line is gone and it’s hard to know anymore what’s moving in which direction and only the solo line stays. At 7:55, the acoustic line is brought in again, different, more like the strings, and Merwald thuds out a straight build on his drums though it took a minute to get there, Colour Haze are back riding the “Fire”-esque riff one more time, less surrounded by swirling and the rest of it, but still.
At this point, the acoustics are gone and there’s an overarching sway behind in Merwald’s cymbals, they’re still building toward something as much as they’re locked into the groove. There’s less than two minutes to the whole album left when at 9:55, the strings return. No less huge than the guitar, bass or drums at that point, they answer back the riff in the guitar much as the horns did in “Transformation,” but it’s even more masterful on “Grace” – more graceful – and at 10:18, some of the strings throw in a lead flourish that it’s so easy to imagine Koglek playing on guitar I had to go back and make sure he wasn’t. They mirror the trio’s groove, but dance around it, and with a crash at 10:40, they end it too soon. Seems strange to want a record that’s already more than 80 minutes long to be longer, but at that point, what’s another two or three riding out that payoff? It’s already one of the most satisfying moments of the band’s career. Hardly would be out of line for them to milk it for a while more. Chalk it up to persistent humility, or class, or whatever you want, but they don’t, and for a band 10 albums in and nearly 15 years together with the same lineup, they’re obviously aware that they could’ve kept “Grace” going. To the last, whatever spirit of spontaneity and organic, live-sounding performance runs throughout the course of She Said, Colour Haze are in total control of everything they do. Even when they let go, they mean to let go.
Back at the beginning of this review, I said to put aside for a moment the context of the manifold technical difficulties Colour Haze endured to make the album. Well, let’s factor that back in. To the best of my understanding, Colour Haze were finished with the tracking when they had to scrap it all and start again, and from every circuit in their board, it seemed for a while like whatever could break would break. Release dates were set, made tentative, then passed. But through all of that, and through expectations and doubts and anticipation and through a scene they had to stand by the sidelines and watch boom all around them, the trio did not relent in their stubborn pursuit of this album, either to their end or its end. And now She Said arrives not just as a creative victory, but a practical one as well over stumbling blocks large and small and Colour Haze take their rightful place as one of the fostering acts of modern European heavy psychedelia. I don’t know if it’s their best album, nor do I know what that question means in the context of a band like this – people will have years of personal association behind their various catalog picks – but it’s their most accomplished, hands down, and the poise with which they step out of themselves and into the larger scale of what they can do with their sound is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from them. If that makes it the best, so be it. It’s definitely the Colour Haze record I’m the gladdest to see materialize, whatever else it might be, since it shows that if this band can survive making this album, then there’s nothing foreseeable that can stop them until they decide to stop themselves, which – if the progress in their sound they’ve made here is anything to go by – is still a long way off. Glorious. Highly recommended.
Tags: Colour Haze, Colour Haze She Said, Elektrohasch Schallplatten, She Said