Xmal Deutschland - Biography
Slightly lost to history in comparison to many of its peers, German goth rock group Xmal Deutschland commanded similar respect as that of Siouxsie & the Banshees and Cocteau Twins for a brief stint in the early 1980s. Releasing a string of truly great albums that featured driving, dark post-punk augmented with eerie ambience and disturbed, howling vocals, the group faltered as it flirted with straight ahead pop at the end of the 80s.
Originally an all-female group, Xmal Deutschland was formed in Hamburg in 1980 by singer Anja Huwe, guitarist Manuela Rickers, keyboard player Fiona Sangster, bassist Rita Simon, and drummer Caro May. The group released its first single, Schwarze Welt, on the Zickzack label in 1981. Three dark tracks of minimal synth-pop set the stage for growing local notoriety, as did the group’s increasingly powerful live shows. Around this time bassist Rita Simon was replaced by Xmal’s first male member, Wolfgang Ellerbrock.
In 1982 the group released its second EP, Incubus Succubus, featuring the title track that quickly became a goth classic. After its release Caro May left the band and was replaced by new drummer Manuela Zwingmann. Outside Hamburg German audiences still hadn’t warmed to the band. However, after a brief opening slot on a Cocteau Twins tour of the UK, including a show that impressed Cocteau Twins’ label 4AD so much that owner Ivo Watts-Russell offered the band a deal, Xmal’s popularity greatly increased.
The band’s debut full-length came in 1983 with the 4AD released Fetisch. The album’s pulsing, dark ambience recalls Bauhaus and Joy Division but with a particularly female, and German, twist. Crackling with distorted energy, these ten songs revel in chugging, hypnotic minimalism. Fuzzed out guitars, grumbling bass, and buzzing synths churn out cyclical riffs over which Huwe passionately wails. The band released two singles that same year. Qual took the song of that name from the full-length and remixed it into a stomping gloom-disco monster backed by two new songs while Incubus Succubus II reworked the band’s pre-4AD single and added a new track. The singles grabbed the attention of legendary DJ John Peel who helped vault the album and both singles to the top of the UK Independent charts. No small feat seeing as all of the band’s lyrics were sung in German.
Zwingmann left the group around this time, replaced by Peter Bellendir. 1984 brought the second full-length, Tocsin, preceded by lead single Reigen / Eliand. The new album boasted a more refined rock sound, but is also more textured and varied than Fetisch. Folding in elements of the swirling, ambient pop sound of Cocteau Twins, Xmal augments its aggressive motorik synth-punk with moments of eerie calm. The production is cleaner overall, but the performances are no less tortured. The queasy atmospheres of “Mondlicht” and the propulsive “Reigen” rank a highpoints in the band’s career to date.
Xmal left 4AD just months after the release of Tocsin. The band embarked on a world tour in 1985 and released the Sequenz EP the same year via the Red Rhino label. The EP featured three new songs including “Autumn,” the group’s first song sung entirely in English. Another EP, Matador, followed in 1986 on the Xile label and features three new songs produced by the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell.
In 1987 the band released what arguably remains its best album, Viva, preceded by the Sickle Moon single. Viva finds Xmal eschewing a bit of its early aggression to craft some of the best downcast, shimmering, dark ambient synth-pop of the era. These ten songs perfectly meld the eerie atmospheres and minimal throb from previous albums with a new found sense of melody. Tracks like “Matador” and “If Only” are marked by memorable hooks sunk deep into glistening synth ambience and Huwe’s most memorable vocal performances. The balance between experimental art-punk and melancholy ambient pop is perfectly executed on tracks like “Illusion (Version),” “Sickle Moon,” and “Feuerwerk (31. Dez).” Viva is that rare album that manages to be both texturally inventive and melodically accessible. It remains Xmal’s finest moment.
Unfortunately by 1989’s Devils, the group had very obviously lost its way. Rickers, Sangster, and Bellendir left the band after Viva and the subsequent tours. Huwe and Ellerbrock worked with producer and keyboardist Henry Staroste and some German session musicians to record Devils. The album and its two singles are blatant stabs at commercial pop music and fall far short of anything interesting. After a few live shows in 1990 Xmal Deutschland permanently disbanded.