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From goth to pop

April 12, 2012

Unheilig started off in the gloom of Gothic pop and until recently, seemed destined to remain a niche group. But since lead vocalist and artist "der Graf" opened himself up to mainstream pop, he is all the rage.

The lights of cars whizzing past der Graf
A ten-year career has pathed the way to successImage: DW

It is one of pop music's age-old archetypes: vampiric get-up, a rumbling voice and dark, unsettling tracks, but the Aachen-based band Unheilig is making it work again - with a little help from some friends.

The group's singer-songwriter known as "der Graf" (The Count) takes pains to appear mysterious and slightly aloof to the public. Behind the mask, though, there's a sensitive artist who did not remain untouched by the major success of his last album.

It became an experience that he had to write about. Unheilig's new album "Lichter der Stadt" ("Lights of the City") is less about a place and more about how der Graf's life has changed in the past two years. The singer puts it this way: "I felt like the young boy from the country who was suddenly in the city. And the big city is all of this hype surrounding me."

A star overnight

Despite working on his career for a decade, the success still seemed sudden and surprising to the Graf - who is the main element in the band Unheilig, which means "unholy" in German. And because his long-desired dream was becoming reality, he rarely said no: to concerts big and small, television appearances, radio interviews, autographs - and even less promotionally effective visits in hospices and hospitals.

Cover of "Lichter der Stadt"
"Lichter der Stadt" is Unheilig's eighth album

All of it had an effect. Those last two commitments, in particular, took their toll on der Graf. When he realized he was feeling overwhelmed, he started expressing his experiences and emotions in song - as he had done for years.

Somewhere between Rammstein and Schlager

"Lichter der Stadt" could be called a concept album - and Unheilig's eighth recording in total. On it, the songwriter opens up to listeners more than ever before, despite not letting people get too close and systematically keeping his private life private.

Musically speaking, he used the 16 new songs to define his profile more clearly after learning from his last album that a song should always be able to stand alone, he said.

"A ballad is a ballad, and a tough song is a tough song," der Graf summed up. To that end, the guitar stands out in the harder tracks, and there are few musical "softeners" such as strings, which have taken the sharp edge off past Unheilig songs.

In the process, "Lichter der Stadt" manages to cover a broad musical range: at least three of the new songs could compete with Rammstein's music, while others are reminiscent of U2, A-ha and Coldplay. Rounding it all out are some softie pieces that could be heard on Schlager TV shows.

But like any true metropolis, this album's wild music mix can hold its own, thanks to der Graf's distinctive signature.

The singer Der Graf from the band Unheilig
A man for all seasonsImage: dpa

An artistic compromise?

There are other new elements on Unheilig's latest album that may be more clearly recognizable: two duets, which der Graf wrote and sang with two currently incredibly hip colleagues: Andreas Bourani and Xavier Naidoo.

The musician from Aachen sees his collaborations as a normal organic process, the result of chance encounters: he met Bourani at the Echo Music Awards and Naidoo during a television appearance. Both were enthused when he asked them to work with him and "contributed their own creative ideas to the pieces," the lead man from Unheilig said.

But it is the collaborations, perhaps combined with the Graf's renunciation of his monk's habit and white contact lenses, for which critics now reproach him. They complain that he has become too commercial over the years as his success has grown. But the Graf has a quick, succinct response that puts everything into perspective: "Der Graf's clothing has been nothing other than a form of protection. I was always very insecure and shy because of my stuttering, and hid myself behind this character."

The Count has long been able to liberate himself and now wants to be a role model for others. "I've become a lot bolder in the past few years. Disclosing my biggest fears has helped me grow and move beyond them."

Author: Andreas Zimmer / als