Isolation Berlin and AnnenMayKantereit In the Eyes of the Critics

The Cologne-based band AnnenMayKantereit stems from an independent and self-taught indie pop culture
The Cologne-based band AnnenMayKantereit stems from an independent and self-taught indie pop culture | Photo (detail): © Fabien J Raclet

The bands Isolation Berlin and AnnenMayKantereit have their roots in similar musical traditions. Whereas Isolation Berlin is lauded in the feature pages, however, AnnenMayKantereit strikes a chord with its listeners. 

Critics quickly reached their verdict: as early as February 2016, the reviewer of the pop magazine Musikexpress was already confident that no other German musician would surpass the band Isolation Berlin. “It may be only February, but it is hard to imagine that a better German-language album will be brought out in 2016”, wrote Christian Ihle. Awarding the band’s debut album Und aus den Wolken tropft die Zeit the maximum score of six points, he predicted that the “capital’s best band” would soon also be the “country’s best band”.

And others are also unanimous in their opinion: Isolation Berlin is currently the “band of consensus” in the specialist press and feature pages. Lyrics full of contemplation, reflection and inner turmoil, plus a sound that incorporates the best of several decades: psychedelic organs, new wave guitar riffs, disco funk bass notes – and last but not least, the melancholy character of the singing is also said to be reminiscent of Rio Reiser, who passed away in 1996.

First celebrated, then criticized as naive

This comparison could prove fatal for the singer Tobias Bamborschke and his band, for Reiser – a political poet – set the bar high. And yet Bamborschke’s lyrics appear to rise above even this yardstick; they are sufficiently critical and self-flagellating not to fall short of the standards defined by the frontman of the band Ton Steine Scherben.  

The Cologne-based band AnnenMayKantereit, on which great hopes had likewise been pinned before their debut album came out in 2016, have fared somewhat differently. It is also rare for articles about this group to lack some reference to Rio Reiser. With their album Alles Nix Konkretes, however, AnnenMayKantereit lost some of their standing in the feature pages of leading German-language newspapers. While celebrated in the early days for their authenticity and carefree nature, they are now regarded as the prototypes of a conformist, naive, self-satisfied and even Biedermeier-like generation.

Feature writers want to see rebellion and rage

Hardly any critic so far has refrained from analysing the chorus in the band’s track 3. Stock (i.e. 3rd Floor). In it, the singer Henning May muses about a couple’s period apartment – “two rooms, kitchen, bathroom and a small balcony”. The song is certainly not one of the highlights of what is actually a fairly refreshing debut album overall, but it is hard to understand the annoyance of the feature writers, who want to see rebellion, protest and rage.

First of all, the critics themselves set the band up for a huge fall by making reference to Rio Reiser. What is more, May’s lyrics are being measured against standards that he never set for himself. The young singer with the unusually mature and rasping voice never chose to appoint himself his generation’s mouthpiece, either. Instead, his songs about separation, friendship and student years appear to strike a chord with listeners who like to hear songs that have something to do with their own lives. And anyway, who would reproach ballad singers such as Elton John, Keane or Billy Joel for not being rebellious?

Artificial contrast

The contrast that is created between bands like Isolation Berlin and AnnenMayKantereit thus appears highly artificial. Both stem from an independent and self-taught indie pop culture, the way to which was paved by Hamburger Schule bands in the 1990s (Blumfeld, Tocotronic, Die Sterne) and indie pop bands of the noughties (Wir sind Helden, Mia., Kettcar).

One aspect of the nearly five-year history of AnnenMayKantereit that remains fascinating to this day is the strength of will and single-mindedness with which Christopher Annen, Henning May and Severin Kantereit – who were still sixth-form students when they formed the band – practised in public parks, polished their style while busking in Cologne city centre and finally used YouTube video to build up a reputation for themselves. Malte Huck joined the band on bass in 2014.

A new indie pop scene

Though adored by the critics, Isolation Berlin has not attracted the attention of mass audiences as yet. However different the lyrics may be, their musical traditions are not all that dissimilar. AnnenMayKantereit’s slower tracks are based more on the aforementioned ballad pop, while their faster songs are more folk revival in nature – a genre spearheaded by the British band Mumford & Sons. Isolation Berlin drew a great deal of inspiration from Joy Division, on the other hand. What is more, both appear at similar festivals – the only difference being that AnnenMayKantereit is now often booked as the headline act.

Already the 2010s have unmistakeably spawned a new indie pop scene in its own right. The most unusual incarnation of this musical style is currently to be found in the Austrian capital. Viennese bands such as Wanda, Kreisky and Bilderbuch appear just a touch more radical, hedonistic and uncompromising than their German counterparts. And as such they have already succeeded in achieving something that Isolation Berlin and AnnenMayKantereit are still working towards: they are equally popular with both listeners and critics alike.