If it's brave for a group to go out in their 15th year and call their album Speculation—by now, according to rock lore, they should be on the downward slide, repeating one idea to diminishing returns—it's also a good marker of how To Rococo Rot continue to function. Back in 1997 they were calling their instruments "tools," analogising their laminar, instrumental songwriting with the fluidity of the contemporary, multimedia arts that were burgeoning across the EU, and thinking through relationships between their micro-managed riffs and the repetitions of everyday life. Nowadays, To Rococo Rot sometimes sound vaguely anachronistic, given the way minimal techno has leapfrogged electronica and IDM in the collective conscious of electronic music fans, but this works to their advantage: there's really still nobody who does this thing (ticking, shuttling, film-projector rhythms, Stefan Schneider's plangent, melodic bass melodies, the clicks, hums and gurgles of their collective kit's central nervous system) remotely as well—if ever.
Speculation was mostly recorded at the studio of Krautrock legends Faust, which accounts for Jochen Irmler's appearance, on spiky, treble-overload organ, on the ten-minute unravel of the closing "Friday." It's nice—To Rococo Rot goes out to sea with their predecessors—but what comes before is the revelation. While they've often included acoustic instrumentation, or simulated acoustica, in their armoury, on Speculation it's often upfront, structuring the songs. The three-note piano refrain that serves as "Seele"'s backbone is oddly reminiscent of The Cure's Seventeen Seconds, and "Forwardness" brings the piano back to duel with Reichian marimba patterns. "Place It" offers an orchestra of bass, from plucked harmonic chimes to sliding, rolling patterns, weaving through electronic melodies in miniature, with the trio's crackling hand claps running interference, all while ghostly waves of synth strings coast and coat the song.
For anyone disappointed by the hermeticism of this album's predecessor, Hotel Morgen, Speculation will pleasantly surprise. Its generous openness recalls To Rococo Rot's signal album, 1999's The Amateur View, and like that record, its melodic flourishes prove the group are no shirkers when it comes to pop music. But I sense something else going on here, perhaps an intensification of character that comes from meeting in such a focused setting after having spent a longer time apart than usual (all three members, Stefan Schnieder and brothers Ronald and Robert Lippok, are busy with extra-curricular activities), leading to a re-tooling of their wonderfully "systems"-oriented approach to making music. Most of all, Speculation reminds that there's always been something deeply human about To Rococo Rot's music, and the way they bring "artificial worlds into correspondence with nature"—as they once described the presence of the tulips that stretch across The Amateur View's front cover—is on fine form here. A very welcome return.