Deutsche Fever

According to a popular philosophy, that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. But that which makes you stronger often gives you bad breath.

I have never been a timid eater. As a tot, I wolfed down spinach and beets, an anomaly Mother chose to interpret as a blessing, not a warning that I'd develop iron-clad taste buds along with my secondary sexual characteristics. But by the time I'd purchased my first disposable razor, she'd already tired of walking into a kitchen that stank of garlic toast for breakfast. Garnishing a midnight bowl of ramen noodles with chopped onions and heart-stopping dollops of blue cheese dressing was not, apparently, a symptom of an adventurous spirit to be encouraged but rather another tiresome example of me "just being difficult."

No surprise then that when it came time to select a foreign language elective in high school, I chose German. The velveteen contours of French and sunny, rounded vowels of Italian held little interest; Spanish seemed so plebian it might as well have been taught two-for-one with auto shop. But a tongue that can make reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke aloud sound like someone swapped out gravel for your Grape-Nuts? Sign me up!

My aromatic breakfasts were the perfect ramp up for first-period German. Navigating a language full of strangulated vowels and knife-sharp consonants was no obstacle for a young man who'd doused his eggs in half a cup of Tabasco just minutes before. I ripped through its tongue-twisting polysyllabic nouns like a man chewing his way out of a burlap sack and spat out verbs with the brutal precision of a nail-gun-wielding carpenter's apprentice wired on crank. I loved German because it sounded so uncompromising.

That is, until I started to investigate its popular music. With Kraftwerk in hibernation and Nina Hagen long defected to the West, in the early '80s Germany's rock scene left much to be desired. Contrasted with the clamorous din of L.A. punk, the arty funk and nascent rap of New York, and the robotic synth-pop of London's New Romantics (the sound that launched a thousand haircuts), the vaunted Neue Deutsche Welle—or German new wave—sounded downright goofy. Try to sit through a whole side of a Trio album today and you'll agree.

For every genuinely challenging exponent, like Palais Schaumburg, whose 1981 "hit" single "Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt" was produced by Flying Lizards oddball David Cunningham, there was a gaggle of acts that felt all one required to make a pop record was a second-hand drum machine and four lines of muttered nonsense about going to the beach. No wonder Einstrzende Neubauten put the fear of god into Berlin when they fired up the jackhammers and demolished outdated conventions like, oh, songs need melodies.

But 20 years later, I have discovered the exception that makes the rule, a Neue Deutsche Welle act that rivaled any cutting-edge band on either side of the Atlantic: Malaria! (The exclamation point is mandatory, placing Malaria! in the same revolutionary tradition as Neu! and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!) Founded by singer-saxophonist Bettina Koster and drummer-guitarist Gudrun Gut (the latter was also a member of Neubauten briefly) in 1981, this quintet laid down dark percussive grooves, topped with Anglo-German lyrics rendered in guttural growls and animated shouts.

Like the German language, the 16 tracks of the newly reissued Malaria! Compiled 1981-1984 (on the German Moabit label) initially struck my ears as uncompromising. But after listening more closely to the haunted waltz of "Macht/Power" or the hand-clapping punk rock hullabaloo "Your Turn To Run" (an underground classic on par with "Die Matrosen" by LiLiPUT), Malaria!'s gift for fusing discordant components into invigorating multilayered tracks emerges. The driving "You You" (which spawned a video directed by Anne Carlisle of Liquid Sky infamy) nails the ugly compulsive nature of desire, as a strung-out Koster stalks through an aural back alley of muted disco beats and expiring synthesizers. In a tradition similar to the Slits, excerpts from the 1982 full-length Emotion like "Eifersucht/Jealousy" and "Geld/Money" are propelled by off-kilter rhythms that threaten to fly apart at any second.

Although the original incarnation of Malaria! split in 1984 (Koster, Gut, and guitarist Manon P. Duursma reunited briefly and recorded an EP with Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell in the '90s), their legacy is slowly coming to light. The so-terrible-they're-wonderful trio Chicks On Speed scraped together a minor German radio hit with their appropriation of Malaria!'s "Kaltes Klares Wasser," and last year's Malaria! Versus collection found acts like Solex and Thomas Fehlmann taking a stab at their repertoire. But start with the uncut stuff, as preserved on Compiled 1981-1984. This disc will make you stronger . . . and with no threat of halitosis.

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