Faust were the most radical and baffling of all the 70s German groups to acquire the ‘krautrock’ label. Their music was only tangentially related to the likes of Amon Düül, Can, or NEU! – on the group’s early albums, musique concret, tape loop experiments, folky guitars, parping saxophones, proto-industrial noise and impenetrable dadaistic lyrics all rub up each against each other in an endlessly fascinating musical and conceptual stew. Ambiguously poised between playful and aggressive, and containing almost no information on personnel or context to allay the listener’s perplexity, these albums remain some of the most challenging and rewarding of the 70s.
From around 1976 onwards, however, the group lay apparently dormant save for very occasional live performances by various members, before being reactivated at the start of the 90s by a trio of original alumni: organist and electronics man HJ (Jochen) Irmler, madcap bassist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/naked action painter Jean-Hervé Péron, and giant, totemic drummer Werner ‘Zappi’ Diermaier. This line-up, in combination with various other musicians, released new Faust music (the albums You Know FaUSt and Rien) and played some legendary concerts in the mid-90s: the best way into this period of Faust is perhaps through the superb concert film Nobody Knows If It Ever Happened (released on DVD by Ankst in 2006), which documents two astonishing 1996 performances at The Garage, London. Soon after this, however, Péron left the fold, having apparently fallen out with Irmler – the reasons have, to my knowledge, never been made public, but the split appears deep and lasting and has had the confusing result that there are now two bands called Faust, both releasing music and playing shows. One group is centred around Péron and Diermaier (the latter having remained with Irmler’s Faust for some years before then throwing in his lot with Péron) and has been the more active of the two in recent times, collaborating with a range of fellow-travellers – most notably Nurse With Wound (on the joint album Disconnected and at various live performances) – and touring in both Europe and the USA.
The other group, the one behind this album, features Irmler and musicians who played in the 90s incarnations of Faust: troubled but brilliant sheets-of-sound American guitarist Steven Wray Lobdell, bassist Michael Stoll, and percussionist and occasional vocalist Lars Paukstat, and joined on this recording by newest recruit, drummer Jan Fride, once of Kraan. The album’s title is apparently an oblique statement of intent: Irmler, who by now has numerous other musical ventures to his name, including solo work and collaborations with artists as diverse as Circle alter-egos Pharaoh Overlord and FM Einheit, has announced that this manifestation of Faust will cease to exist in the near future, and that the two discs of Faust Is Last represent their last will and testament.*
The album begins with the bracing and ominous sound of sheet metal being scraped over a low, buzzing drone (“Blech Und Brumm”) before embarking on what feels like an exhaustive tour of this line-up’s tropes and influences. Irmler’s Faust have tended to favour lengthy, brooding instrumentals underpinned by sombre organ tones (check out the live albums Edinburgh ’97 and the superb Land of Ukko and Rauni for prime examples) that, together with the use of clanking scrap metal and Lobdell’s lava-flow guitar, have often lent their music a rough-hewn, elemental feeling rarely encountered in the modern world of airbrushed electronica and pre-programmed perfection. That seismic, bowels-of-the-Earth feeling pervades many of the tracks here as well, but there seems to have been a decision to aim for more concise statements: the first disc contains 15 tracks, none of which exceed six minutes in length, with many under three minutes. Indeed some tracks are so brief that the transitions from one to the next occasionally recall the startling juxtapositions of The Faust Tapes, the bewildering but brilliant cut-up album from 1973, which is still the most legendary Faust release. And these studio tracks have, not surprisingly, been more carefully worked than the aforementioned live improvisations, with the overall flow enlivened by well-placed splashes of musical colour from all the participants, Lobdell in particular. It all hangs together as a kind of suite, making it perhaps unwise to pick out individual tracks, but “Feed the greed” and “Steinbrand” are propulsive, thickly textured rhythmic workouts that sound most akin to the group’s late 90s output. Elsewhere, Lars Paukstat’s taste for raw garage rock surfaces on the industrial rockers “Hit Me” and “I Don’t Buy Your Shit No More.” Not much on this album sounds obviously like anyone else, but this latter track could pass for the Stooges (even down to Lars’ Iggy-ish vocals) remixed by Einstürzende Neubauten.
It’s this unique mix of the industrial and the organic that defines this version of Faust, and the second disc swirls the various sonic elements into longer, more abstract pieces. It seems that percussionist Z’Ev, who has collaborated with Irmler before, was involved in some capacity on disk 2, and while I’m uncertain what he did exactly, the insect-swarm percussion sounds that form a sonic backdrop to “In But Out” and “GhosTrain” could well be his handiwork. Elsewhere on disk 2, “Ozean” recalls the blurred narcosis of Spacemen 3 at their most numbed, and there are even some death-metal-style rasping vocals on “In But Out;” but for the most part Faust follow their own peculiar aesthetic, the music dense with layers, building to appropriately infernal intensity in places.
In short, this is a superb album. A summation of sorts, it warrants repeated close listening, and can stand comparison with anything released under the Faust name. It remains to be seen what Jochen Irmler and his compadres will do next, collectively or otherwise, but if this really is the end of (this) Faust, it’s a final statement more than worthy of this most legendary group.
*Addendum: It seems that the name Faust Is Last has caused some confusion, including in this review. The statement on the Klangbad website was in fact a quotation of a review, and there are no plans for this to be the last record recorded or released by HJ Irmler’s Faust. (Ed.)