One has to wonder sometimes what motivates artists in their choice of subject matter, and what message they are trying to convey. Crime Scene is the new release from RPWL, casting their gaze on truly dark themes to focus on different aspects of crime and evil. This is their first new studio album since 2019 and is a world away from Tales from Outer Space. They have shared that Crime Scene “directs its attention to the morbid, the perverse, the evil in good, the abysses of the human behaviour spectrum in all its unpredictable diversity, which sometimes comes across as bizarrely disturbing…” This is controversial, sensitive and rather risky territory for any artists.
RPWL have long been proponents of highly polished melodic progressive rock. Their origins as a Pink Floyd tribute band have been continuously evident for over 20 years, but they have also developed their own distinctive voice and style with classic albums such as 2005’s World through my Eyes and 2012’s Beyond Man and Time. To follow the criminal theme, if we treat Crime Scene like an autopsy, we can quite clearly identify that the body of this album has the same musical DNA of well-crafted and well produced art rock songs in the assured RPWL style. The question our investigation could ask is, how well have RPWL addressed the challenge of focusing on the darker recesses of Evil and Crime within their familiar musical pathways?
RPWL’s press release mentions sinister individuals such as Karl Denke, known as the ‘Cannibal of Munsterberg,’ who is thought to have killed as many as 42 vagrants and travellers in early 20th Century Germany, and Carl Tanzler, who acted out a highly unpleasant obsession in bizarre ways in 1930’s Florida, which we will touch on later. These and other subjects are true stories, so we are dealing with some grisly happenings here which need sensitive handling.
RPWL trailed this album with the release of a disturbing cinematic video for the opening song, Victim of Desire, which swings into action with trademark steepling guitar lines from Kalle Wallner. The piece descends into a much grittier, staccato section with multi-layered vocals from Yogi Lang, possibly suggesting the tortured, fractured mind of a serial killer? The song settles into a much mellower passage with softer vocals and instrumentation which then alternates with the much more forthright fanfare sounds of the opening theme. A spasmodic guitar and synth interlude is an interesting diversion before RPWL return to their tried and tested powerful melodic rock. The lyrics seem to want to explore the origins of who we are and what we become – what makes psychopaths become killers?
Is it a childhood dream, so dark that we can’t see? A neural guide you can’t resist?
Is it the urge to be on everybody’s mind, To leave something under their skin?”
Does Victim of Desire shed much light on this chilling conundrum? The music is standard lushly produced RPWL rock – it is done well – because that’s what RPWL do VERY well – but does it tell us anything? Does it make us feel anything about this sinister subject? There is also something rather odd to the obvious double meaning of the Victim of Desire song title as the intention appears to be to draw a parallel between the unfortunate murder victims of the killer, and the sense that the killer himself is a ‘Victim of Desire’, which appears to be rather a crass and insensitive comparison.
There is a thin dividing line in art, when touching on dark subjects, between legitimate and sensitive exploration of an issue or straying over the line towards an unfortunate sense of voyeurism. The aforementioned promotional video for Victim of Desire is portrayed like some sort of standard police procedural film as our ‘heroes’ (RPWL) search for a serial killer in a ‘mini-movie’. This video features the ritualistic murder of one woman and the kidnapping of another, portrayed in rather lurid detail. Our ‘heroes’ eventually rescue the unfortunate kidnap victim, but this clumsy video left rather a sour taste in the mouth with its gratuitous scenes of violence towards women by a dominant man and the simplistic Hollywood style dénouement when our ‘heroes’ (all men, of course) rescue the imprisoned woman in the nick of time. ‘Good’ did prevail in the end, but I am not sure what this song and video is trying to tell us, and it is certainly dubious in its depiction of violence towards women. There also seems only a tenuous relationship between the melodic progressive rock used as the soundtrack to this story and the dark grisly themes or the tortured, twisted mind which it is meant to be portraying.
Having introduced us in to the dark recesses of the mind of a serial killer in the first song, where can RPWL go with the next song?
How about delving into the depths of necrophilia in the deceptively sweet Red Rose… yep, you read that correctly – a pleasant little ditty about the perverted obsession a very strange radiographer called Carl Tanzler in 1930s Florida had about his young patient Elena Milagro de Hoyos, who sadly died with tuberculosis. Tanzler subsequently stole her corpse and preserved her for very dubious reasons and ‘lived’ with her decaying body as some sort of corpse bride for seven years. (You can probably tell that Google was well used in this review…) This may well be a first for me (and most of us hopefully!) – a gentle ballad-like song describing the perverted defilement of a human body by an incredibly twisted and obsessive mind. Musically it is an unremarkable piece, and the lyric swings rather prosaically between the voice of the crazed necrophiliac and the poor corpse of de Hoyos – it is truly bizarre as a concept for a song and is presented in mellow tones. It could be perceived as chilling, but in its ballad-like format it frankly just feels incredibly weird and ill-fitting.
Where can RPWL take us next in this peculiar musical Chamber of Horrors?
What is that tinkling sound I hear with a pleasant acoustic guitar and gently chiming keyboards, which could easily be the start of a classic Coldplay song? (Not that there is anything wrong with a Coldplay song, by the way!) Well, it’s the start of A Cold Spring Day in ’22, and not much internet detective work reveals, with some lyrical details uncannily close to the narrative in the Wikipedia entry for the event, that this peculiar piece of pop confectionery is based on the grim mystery of the Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria in 1922. A young family of five and their maid were found slaughtered and no-one was ever convicted. The rather literal lyric tells us that footsteps had been heard in the attic but the family found no-one up there, and later in the song we hear about mysterious footsteps in the snow found leading up to a building on the farmhouse. There’s no poetic perspective or emotional insight shown – it’s just a rather dispassionate musical report of an appalling mass murder. A Cold Spring Day in ’22 rolls along quite incongruously with bright and breezy melodies underpinning this grisly true story of the murder of a whole family, including two young children… but when you know what it’s about there’s a real sense of jarring disconnection between the horrific reality of those murders and the jangling, pleasant music employed to tell the story. One could speculate that Evil can be portrayed in different ways, and that there may be an impact in contrasting the darkness of the theme with the lightness of the musical style… you could think that, but to be honest that’s a difficult sell for this listener as there is such a yawning chasm between the subject matter and the music used.
RPWL state in their publicity that “RPWL have never known limits”. One has to question, with songs featuring serial murderers, necrophilia and the slaughter of a family, whether there are indeed limits no one should go beyond, even in the name of art.
By this time, I was starting to lose faith with RPWL on this album (and let’s be clear, I have previously given very positive reviews of their releases and gigs), however, Life in a Cage restored some faith in the band. The opening pulsing synth introduces an uneasy and atmospheric song with a sense of brooding dislocation and claustrophobia, with echoes of later Peter Gabriel in some subtle, ethereal guitar from Kalle Wallner. RPWL’s publicity gives no clue as to the subject matter here and, frankly, having researched enough unsavoury and deeply disturbing stories I did not really want to dig up any more. There is a sense that this is a more obscure and poetic lyric, and sometimes it is better to let the listener interpret the words in their own way, avoiding a more obvious didactic, reportage style. The use of the vocoder for some of the singing gives Yogi Lang’s voice an other-worldly quality, and a later Wallner solo is brooding, understated and expressive, in keeping with the atmosphere and theme of the song rather than being flamboyant and triumphant. Similarly, final song Another Life Beyond Control seems less obvious and more ambiguous in its subject matter, and is possibly the most adventurous and musically interesting song on the album. It commences with a great bass and drums intro, RPWL of course gliding smoothly into their distinctive melodic and anthemic rock passages, but they intersperse it with quirky diversions, including a mid-song floating guitar line which morphs into an uncharacteristically dirty sounding solo backed by that crunching bass from new band member Markus Grutzner. Lang later lays a delightful synth solo over the same great bass and drums bed – for me it is the best song on the album, partly because it stretches the RPWL envelope beyond their usual formula.
RPWL let loose with one extended nearly 13-minute piece in King of the World, which opens rather spectacularly with great keys and impressive bass play. It’s an engaging and impressive opening which draws you in with a synth fanfare, and one may be forgiven for thinking we may be going down a similar path to the magnificent epic The Fisherman from Beyond Man and Time. However, somewhat disappointingly it then recedes to a much more pedestrian tempo and style which does not exactly set the pulses racing. To be honest, it plods along, albeit with a graceful guitar line from Wallner, but it does not really excite, engage or inspire. Halfway through, RPWL return to familiar Floydian territory with a subtle pulsing bass and softly chiming guitar section, joined by a gorgeous sinuous synth line from Lang and then Wallner soars with a Gilmour-esque solo – it’s classic RPWL territory with the opening main themes recapitulated at the end. On some levels it feels impressive, but in all honesty, it did not really capture my mind or move me emotionally. Musically it feels like different parts glued together without a coherent sense of flow or atmosphere. Maybe wading through their bizarre explorations of extreme evil earlier in the album was not making me feel exactly pre-disposed to engage positively with this piece, or maybe it just doesn’t work?
So what is the final conclusion from the autopsy of this album?
Some may consider it to be a legitimate artistic reflection on a very difficult and challenging subject, and of course RPWL have the right to express themselves on whatever subject they see fit. They would not be the first artists to touch on dark subject matters in their music, but I would suggest that other artists have explored such dark recesses of the human mind with more artistry and sensitivity. For me, this album strays too much towards an unfortunate and possibly gratuitous voyeurism of awful events and people in its subject matter. Apart from the issue with the lyrical core, there is also the issue of seemingly just nailing these subjects onto standard RPWL musical vehicles with limited connection between the musical content and the lyrical horrors portrayed. The music is not ‘bad’ or ‘poorly played’ – RPWL have too much class for that – but one has to wonder what they were thinking when putting the music together with the lyrics in terms of atmosphere and feel.
Maybe I am just overly sensitive or squeamish, but I genuinely find it difficult to imagine one day thinking “Oh yeah, let’s play Crime Scene as I’m just in the right mood for songs about necrophilia, serial killers and mass murder!” It just ain’t going to happen. I very rarely give negative reviews and as a long-time admirer of RPWL this one actually pains me to write, but I simply think they got this one badly wrong.
Sorry, RPWL but the main crime here is this album itself.
01. Victim of Desire (8:16)
02. Red Rose (5:35)
03. A Cold Spring Day in ’22 (4:21)
04. Life in a Cage (6:11)
05. KIng of the World (12:51)
06. Another Life Beyond Control (7:51)
Total Time – 45:05
Yogi Lang – Vocals, Keyboards
Kalle Wallner – Guitars
Markus Grutzner – Bass
Marc Turiaux – Drums
Record Label: Gentle Art Of Music | Soulfood
Country of Origin: Gemany
Date of Release: 17th March 2023
– God Has Failed (2000)
– Trying to Kiss the Sun (2002)
– Stock (2003)
– World Through My Eyes (2005)
– Start the Fire (Live) (2005)
– The RPWL Experience (2009)
– The RPWL Live Experience (2009)
– Nine (2009)
– The Gentle Art of Music (2010)
– Beyond Man and Time (2012)
– A Show Beyond Man and Time (2013)
– Wanted (2014)
– RPWL Plays Pink Floyd (2015)
– RPWL Plays Pink Floyd – The Man and The Journey (2016)
– A New Dawn (Live) (2017)
– Tales from Outer Space (2019)
– Live from Outer Space (2019)
– God has Failed – Live and Personal (2021)
– Crime Scene (2023)