Four years have passed since the release of Berlin Serengeti, the debut album from producer Niko Schabel and friends, aka Radio Citizen. His first album was an all-out assault of electronic music armed with organic tentacles that reached far into an eclectic bag of rough jazz and worldly funk. It not only caught the ears of tastemaker DJs and press (“It leaps dozens of genres in a single bound, digs up all those old sounds I love, fits them together, and erects a temple to pop’s melting pot” – PITCHFORK) but also wound up in movies and TV shows as varied as Grey’s Anatomy, Californication, and this summer’s blockbuster Takers.
Schabel creates music that balances being accessible and exciting by way of his ability to blend the electronic with the organic. On Berlin Serengeti he seamlessly glued-together a loose collage of sampled textures and embellished them with gifted musicians and vocalists. On Hope and Despair he takes an even headier blend of raucous live instrumentation and works it into gritty songs and walls of sound with deft mixing and subtle studio trickery all rooted by heavyweight bass lines. His mass ensemble of musical friends often performs together in the Radio Citizen live show that developed after the release of the first album. Their unified musical prowess is reflected in the soloing, the harmonies, and all the interactions, that lift Hope and Despair above its predecessor.
“Hope and Despair has many more layers of sound, there’s more to discover,” says Schabel. “If the Berlin Serengeti album was 8mm, Hope and Despair is cinemascope. It’s heavier, with more space and deepness.”
The album launches at full force on the first track, “Test Me.” Jagged strings provide a tense backdrop for special guest Ursula Rucker to strut her stuff. On “Home,” “Midnight” and “Skyscapers” Schabel furthers his Berlin Serengeti experiments forging indestructible genre (and speaker) busting joints that ride the line between hip hop, dub and jazz. On “Hope” and “Stop or Go” Bajka adds her unique dusty vocal flow to the busted beats. She also wrote the music and lyrics to “Summer Days,” the more organic and live track of her three appearances. On “Move” and “Thema” Schabel balances Afro-Cuban rhythm with big band backing, the latter taking off with a pull-no-punches rhodes solo. “Last Exit” is a piece of cinematic jazz just waiting for the right movie to happen. The sound, at times, is like an orchestra in the style of The Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra’s Arkestra with huge wind sections or multiple percussionists driving the listener on a whirlwind tour through African rhythms, Ethiopique-stewed funk, and film-noir jazz. The bitter blue sound of “World” recalls vintage Archie Shepp (circa Attica Blues) with Schabel interjecting only brief moments of respite from the chaotic walls of horns and piano.
“Julian Waiblinger (drums) and Wolfi Schlick (flute and sax) have really come into their own. The piano players (Jo Junghanns, Antonis Anissegos and Marja Burchard) have great features. Playing a lot live and improvising (with Radio Citizen, Niko Schabel Quartet, the Express Brass Band and other bands) has been a good schooling,” explains Schabel. “And working in the studio forces one to really know what you want to do and exercise it both with precision and intuition,” he adds. For Hope And Despair Schabel made thousands of drafts, piecing together countless recording sessions, and spending long hours spent editing and listening for the right moments and sounds.
“The title works on different levels. It’s definitely about the process of producing this album which took so long I needed much endurance,” explains Schabel.” But it also refers to the global-political situation of the last ten years which really provided enough reason for despair but also some for hope. Then, there’s the music business…” he adds.
The four years between records was not spent entirely in the studio or touring. Schabel also knocked out a complete soundtrack for the movie “Football Under Cover,” (an award winning indie-flick about an amateur female soccer team from Berlin that goes on a nerve-wracking journey to play the first female soccer match in the history of Iran) in addition to making music for many small movies, engineering, and producing for other bands.