Sometimes, just looking at a release, one knows. Schwere See is packaged in a slim, handsome DVD case, dark ocean waves inside and out, simple yet striking. The artist’s website displays a similar sense of style. Like us, Peter Prautzsch prefers the order of squares. His media design and concert credits are extensive, his photography exquisite. He may be young, but he has already compiled a lifetime of achievements. Add the preview videos (three of which can be seen below), and one can clearly see that this album has been built to succeed.
Schwere See is at least the third release in recent months to take as its starting point the oft-doomed expeditions of oceanic and polar explorers, following Richard Knox & Frédéric D. Oberland’s The Rustle of the Stars and Spheruleus’ Voyage. The subject matter is rife with inspiration: bravery, sacrifice, madness and occasionally triumph. These men sailed or marched into the great unknown, with unsteady compasses and suspect supplies, falling prey to the vicissitudes of weather and time. Their stories alternate between turmoil and calm, which Prautzsch honors here, frontloading the busier pieces and eventually drawing to an uneasy dock.
Guest stars sign on for parts of the voyage, entering and departing at different ports: Marc Weisner, Frisovan Daaien, Vladislav Delay and Masayoshi Fujita (El Fog). Their contributions provide unexpected angles to a timbre that is already in flux, as temperamental as the (literal) winds of fate on an Arctic plain. One moment, the sounds are spacious and deep, the next narrow and dense. The somber mood (schwere see means heavy sea) is clearly broken on at least one occasion, as an overwhelmed background narrator suddenly exclaims, “Holy crap!” The overall sense is one of foreboding: a vastness before and a vastness behind, effectively conveyed by impeccable mastering and a careful allotment of sound.
The deep bass of the opening “Beaufort” is set against the high-pitched squawking of seagulls and a massing squall of strings. Soon the water begins to lap and the drones begin to rise like flood levels on a sinking ship. Forget the triumphant launch – we’re already in danger. Radio signals and electronic patterns nudge their way into the sonic field like debris caught on radar. The center track, “Treibeis”, is the most intensely felt, with icicle crackles and dark chords enhanced by foghorn-like blasts and beelike buzzes, mutual nods to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Johann Johannsson. As expected, “James Caird” is a bit brighter, named after the boat that saved the surviving members of the Endurance after being aimed at a distant island with little chance of success. Holy crap, indeed. As the album draws to a close, the notes begin to separate like distant icebergs: sea birds are audible once more, and “Tromsø”s long winter has given way to shafts of light. The sea may be heavy and the voyage long, but Schwere See is well worth boarding. (Richard Allen)