There’s something quietly – even entertainingly – appropriate about the fact that Eva and Philipp Milner spent their early years growing up in Lohr Am Main, a small town in the German region of Spessart. For a good century and a half, in the period following the Thirty Years War, the area was bandit country, plagued by outlaws who robbed travellers passing through its picturesque range of wooded mountains. The Milners aren’t inclined towards such activities, of course: for starters, the brother and sister were raised by parents who both taught religion, and Eva spent time singing in the local church choir as a girl, while Phillip still leads the children’s choir in his local village. But since 2010, when they released their eponymous debut as HUNDREDS, the siblings have built a career around a sound inspired by a dramatically varied list of influences, one that offers ghostly reminders of the past while they enrich the present with its bounty. This combination of a never-nostalgic love for the original pioneers of electronic pop with a far-sighted, refined understanding of today’s most thrilling innovators has also earned them a reputation as one of Germany’s most successful indie acts, something particularly significant for a band with a female singer. If they were initially galvanized by the work of artists like The Knife (another band formed by siblings) and Thom Yorke, then spurred on further by acts as diverse as Grizzly Bear, Cinematic Orchestra, Son Lux and St. Vincent, what’s emerged – reinvented and refined in their own image – is something defiantly their own.
This was never truer than on their fourth album, THE CURRENT, a title they chose because, Eva explains, “First of all, it’s about the flow, and about letting yourself go and being a close observer of that process.” Typically, though, they adopted the name for other reasons too, drawing upon the words’ multiple connotations. “It means a lot of different things to us,” she continues. “The river that flows, people fleeing en masse to other countries, everything always moving and changing, and how hard it is to find a final position. Maybe that isn’t even possible.” It’s this ability to assimilate ideas and objectives from manifold sources, while restlessly refusing to settle on a single approach – not that they lack focus – which makes their work so engrossing. “We really listen to our feelings,” Eva emphasises. “We know exactly when a song is HUNDREDS material.”
THE CURRENT finds them testing new approaches and embracing fresh techniques, whether it be the notable addition of Hannes Butzer’s pedal steel on ‘Untold’ – marking the first time they’ve used a guitar on a recording – or Philipp’s first appearance behind the microphone on ‘Vessel in The Sky’, the album’s ingenious opener, which opens with strange pizzicato sounds before developing into what could be Brian Eno at his most immediate. Indeed, THE CURRENT – which will be launched in January 2020 at Hamburg’s celebrated new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, with a show that sold out within a week – is full of adventure and intrigue, not to mention confidence and creativity.
Naturally, Eva’s delicious melodies dazzle throughout, as they always have done: light as a summer breeze on the extravagant, Eurythmics-like ‘In The Air’; inscrutable, like Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken, amid ‘Ready Shaking Silent’’s discreet pop; angelic on the vespertine ‘Untold’; ominous on the brooding ‘The Bombs’; agile on the increasingly electrifying ‘You’re The Storm’. But, as is often typical with siblings, Philipp insists he too share the spotlight. Though their grandmother’s piano, which stands in the middle of his studio – located in an old farmhouse halfway between Berlin and Hamburg, in the sparsely populated region of Wendland – remains central to almost every song, THE CURRENT represents his most digital recording to date, its elegance, sophistication and poignancy emphasised by his painstaking attention to detail and sleek production skills. That his studio talent is called upon by other acts, including their friends Missincat, is hardly surprising.
THE CURRENT, however, is never cold-hearted. Drummer Florian Wienczny, who’s played with them since 2014 and works alongside Philipp in the studio, ensures that their rhythmic backbone remains instinctive, while strings were added by cellist Clara Jochum, and trombonist Christian Kohlhaas makes an invaluable contribution to ‘Calling’’s drama. Producer Lucas Herweg also popped by regularly to offer friendly advice, while songwriter Tim Neuhaus – of the band Clueso, with whom Philipp has also played – offered further encouragement. Eva’s lyrics, meanwhile, are full of humanity and compassion but, sometimes, cruelty. On the title track, she revisits and rekindles an old friendship, her striking imagery – “all my new feathers are glued to my body” – a reminder that our appearance is merely manufactured and our vulnerability never more than superficially protected,
while, in contrast, ‘Ready Shaken Silent’ – based on a sketch by songwriter Lilly Among Clouds, and in which Eva
sings brutally of how “I will rip your words/ Out of your pretty mouth… I’m setting fire to your scalp” – is, she reveals, “a kind of revenge song, even if I don’t have a specific person in mind. I see it as feminist, about standing up to the bullies who impede you from finding your voice.”
In addition, ‘Calling’ – with its blunt admission that “I hear you howling in the dark/ And I won’t take part” – is about finding perspective on a toxic situation, refusing to engage with it, and revelling in the subsequent emancipation. “Don’t look back in anger,” Eva urges, “but when it’s time to be angry, stand by your rage!” ‘The Bombs’, furthermore, starts with a description of what sounds like a Mafia punishment – “While your right hand feels the water/ Your left hand holds a knife/ And your feet are stuck in concrete” – before developing into something which laughs in the face of adversity, with both its violent and victorious moods reflected in the accompanying music. On the other hand, ‘Untold’, she says, “is my version of a classic love song”, while ‘In The Air’, which started life as what she calls “a very slow and solemn ballad”, is full of charmingly fanciful escapism, its chorus – “We were made to write the book of us” – a perfect counterpoint to its warmth. ‘You’re The Storm’, moreover, turns to trip-hop, whose figureheads – Portishead, Moloko, Lamb, Morcheeba – are, she admits, “what brought me to singing and loving that bittersweet mood.”
There’s peace to be found as well on ‘Body Of Water’, “an ode to the spirits of the water and its power” written with cult Berlin-based, Irish songwriter Wallis Bird, “without whom,” Eva confesses, “I never would’ve found that chorus.” Here she reflects on the peace which the sea can bring – “They uncover my core, my truth” – and throughout THE CURRENT she turns again and again to the natural world for inspiration. “Maybe it’s because we grew up in the forest,” she explains, “playing outside a lot, making fires, building forts and getting our hands dirty. Our childhood memories are filled with days of running around, being creators in the wilderness. Nature is like a relative to us.”
Given HUNDRED’s history of covers – among them Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ and Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’, both of which have been streamed multiple millions of times since their release – it’s perhaps unsurprising that THE CURRENT offers one too. This time their selection – an interpretation of ‘Consequence’, from The Notwist’s Neon Golden, an album many consider a pinnacle of Germany’s electronic-indie crossover practices – is especially bold. Nonetheless, as one might expect of a band which shares a number of qualities with those stalwarts of Germany’s legendary Weilheim scene – among them a determination to ensure that every song offers powerful hooks amid meticulous experimentation – they once again excel themselves, with its tender opening line, “You’re the colour/ You’re the movement and the spin”, perfectly suited to its pristine, restrained grace. Eva denies they’d ever consider HUNDREDS to be The Notwist’s successors, but it’s hard not to conclude that the two bands have more than similar geographic origins and sibling members in common.
THE CURRENT is, according to Eva, “the most ‘pop’ album we’ve ever made”, but its emotional tides are so strong that its final track, the sometimes tranquil, sometimes stormy instrumental ‘Riptide’, can’t help but return one to its source. Original, imaginative and enchanting, HUNDREDS sometimes plunder the past but always looks to the future. They may be thick as thieves – “We can talk without words,” Eva says of her relationship with her brother – but the only things they steal are the show. And, of course, your heart.