Vono’s debut is easy to like.
“Deep in the jungle, a shark lurks.” The line suggests dada poetry more than a synth-pop lyric, but such was the mindset of brothers Norbert and Volker Schultze, whose minimal synthesizer lines and stark Teutonic outbursts formed the basis of the generally forgotten avant-pop duo Vono. Bureau B has reissued the brothers’ 1982 debut album, Dinner für 2, and if it’s easy to hear it as a source of the recurring “SNL” parody Sprockets, its stark music is as seriously catchy and danceable as anything from the era.
The opening title track instantly lays out the Schultzes’ strategy: synth melodies are constructed from short lines as jerky bass and percussion bubble under vocals that sound like rhythmically barked orders. “Dinner für 2” may be an avant-garde dance party, but if the brothers intended to alienate, they didn’t entirely succeed—the minimalist arrangement offers a great, driving hook that one could easily imagine as a hit single.
Vono’s gift for the decadent earworm gives way to the more brooding timbres on such tracks as “Tanzstunde” (appropriately, “Dancing Lesson”), or to the mischievous impulse to simply shout out lottery numbers on “Lottozahlen,” which plays out its found-lyric over a whimsically percolating synth line that suggests both a modernistic coffeepot and a German game show theme song. The group’s very playfulness goes a long way to making its experimental pop so accessible. There was more than one potential single here – “Im Schien des Neon” is another example of the Schultzes’ minimal synth lines easily lending themselves to mechanically hummable melodies.
The group originally recorded for the Sky label, home to such luminaries as Cluster and Brian Eno. But if its label mates leaned more to art and Krautrock, Vono funneled those influences through a highly efficient rhythm and melody delivery system. On instrumentals such as “Mauertanz 1” (“Wall dance 1”) and the fragment “Bitte Wenden” (“Please Contact”), which clocks in at just over a minute, the brothers’ music, minus the vocal barks, is almost calming. The guttural syllables come back with a vengeance on “Tief im Dschungel,” the source of the “shark lurks” line, which may well be humorous, but an echoed, percussively shouting chorus gives it a sinister air. Still, the hooks keep coming, as on “Nimm alles mit” (“Take Everything with Me”), which revisits the structure of the title track with somewhat more gentle barking.
Decidedly uncommercial yet oddly inviting, Vono may bear some resemblance to German synth poppers D. A. F., who hit with “Der Mussolini.” The Schultzes’ own response to fascism may be “Mit mir zum Siege” (“With me to Victory”), which ends on a martial and – one presumes – satirical drumbeat. But a better comparison may be New York proto-punks Suicide, Vono replacing Alan Vega’s psychological intensity with a cool distance that should have made its music more off-putting. But while Suicide is a more demanding listen, Vono’s debut is easy to like. Except, perhaps, to the Schultzes themselves, who followed it up with what are reportedly more conventional, rock-oriented albums. Who knows where else they might have gone with this concept? The oddly-flavored instrumental “Hitze” ends the album with touches of the Caribbean and far East, taking their concisely-crafted ideas into yet another surprising new direction. Dinner für 2 is essential listening for synth-pop fans, proof that even if the industrialization of pop may conspire to turns artists into machines, the humans programming those machines can’t help but invent new radio-friendly ways to convey the anxieties of modern living.