Astoria is the second concept album in as many years from Jochen Tiberius Koch, whose last album was a reflection on Walden. The new subject is the Astoria Hotel, once a crown jewel of Leipzig architecture and hospitality. While tracing the history of the hotel, Koch transforms it into a historic and social parable, ending on a note of uncertainty that reflects the current age.
The album is half-vocal and half-instrumental, but as many of the lyrics are in German, one will need liner notes or a translator to understand the nuance. The spoken opener sets the stage with a refrain of “if walls could talk,” introducing the hotel as main character. After this the narrative progresses through the hotel’s air raid destruction in 1943 to post-war reconstruction, government use, privatization and finally disuse.
There’s a slight disconnect between the tone of the music, which strains toward beauty, and the words, which are world-weary and melancholic. Even in the first piece, the piano plays an uplifting melody, bolstered by supporting strings. In contrast, “Uplifting Monument” begins in march-like fashion, in context militaristic, recalling Wagner. “Uplifting” may mean “lifting up” or “building” rather than “boosting the spirit.” The pride of a nation is on display, as reflected in the finale of “Sunrising.”
We’re not too keen on lyrics at A Closer Listen, so when English appears: “suitcase, suitcase, the elevator goes up and down, opens and closes,” we’re wincing a bit ~ although this is billed as “indie pop / electronica / modern composition.” The singing soon dissipates, revealing a beat-driven track that didn’t need such simple exposition. Koch’s instrumentation is his strength, although we intuit theatre aspirations, or even Top 40 dreams (“The Ballare,” which includes sweet singing and sleigh bells, and the memorable “Epilog”).
For an accessible album, it’s a very unusual album. Ironically, the music seems to say more whenever the singers ~ as wonderful as they are ~ take a step back to allow the melancholy to flow. “The Lobby Boys” recreates a feeling of wonder and hospitality without a single word. The electronic shifting is a pleasant surprise, a collision of cultures. The Schmalkalden Philharmony (conducted by Knut Masur) is in fine form, although one can sense the hand of Koch in the modern additions. “33/45” heads in an even more electronic direction, following the sound of an air raid siren and the words, “the walls are breaking.” We recall other walls that have broken, the most obvious being Pink Floyd’s wall and the Berlin Wall. The track ends with spoken word and a clock, an familiar yet theatrical combination.
Once again, just as we’re thinking too many words, we reach the album’s centerpiece, “After the War.” Tonally, the track seems a bit too upbeat for its subject, but the combination of live drums and brass proves an unexpected triumph. From this point forward, the album addresses the modern era with a mix of trepidation and resignation. Today the hotel is unused. It’s seen so much; it has so much to offer. The instrumental “Decline” proves a perfect reflection of its title, paving the way for the gorgeous “Lost Place.” Nearly twenty minutes pass before the final singer appears.
“Is it ’cause we can’t stand maybe?” sings Fraullein Laura, but a more accurate translation may be “uncertainties.” The world is again fragmenting; beauty is ignored; the future is unclear. The Astoria lasted through one such period; will it survive another, or become a parable people no longer attempt to decipher? In the words of Lamentations, is it nothing to you, all who pass by? (Richard Allen)