By Howard Whitman
“They are a German band
Who try to play the music of Pink Floyd
And so they make their way
Unable to come up with their own style …”
-Lyrics from “This Is Not a Prog Song” by RPWL
These self-effacing lyrics could serve as a “quick take” telling of the origins of RPWL—but the words (attributed in the song to one of the band’s detractors) ring false. While it’s true that the German progressive rock band began by playing the music of the legendary British band, the part about RPWL being unable to come up with a style of their own couldn’t be further from the truth.
Formed in 1997, RPWL (named for the last names of its four founding members, of which the W—guitarist Kalle Wallner and the L—vocalist/keyboardist Yogi Lang, remain) have forged their own unique sound on powerful albums such as Beyond Man and Time (2012) and Wanted (2014), culminating in what may be their finest work yet, 2019's release Tales From Outer Space.
While their previous two studio albums featured heavy topics such as philosophy, politics and government persecution, Tales From Outer Space takes a slightly lighter approach, telling stories based around the theme of space exploration. Its music, however, is as solid, melodic and impactful as anything in the band’s catalog. And while it’s not an outright Pink Floyd homage, that influence is strongly felt.
Although RPWL is a serious undertaking for its members (along with Lang and Wallner, keyboardist Markus Jehle, drummer Marc Turiaux and touring bassist Sebastian Harnack), that wasn’t always the case. “It started out as a fun project,” Lang recalled. “I was recording an LP for the band Violent District, and Kalle Wallner was the guitar player. We made contact, and at the end of the '90s, we met with a couple of friends and wanted to get onstage. So we jammed on old Floyd songs and ran through the region. It was so much fun, writing songs again, and the feeling of having a band just like when you’re 13 or 14 and you have your first band. … A guy from the record company got our demo tape and said, ‘Let’s do an album.’ We said, ‘Yeah, okay,’ but we didn’t have a name. Just to have this thing off the table, we used the first letters of our names, so RPWL was born.”
RPWL’s first album God Has Failed was released in 2000 to acclaim, but Lang feels the band really started to find its own sound on its second album, World Through My Eyes (2005). “On the second record, we just did what we wanted to,” he recalled. “It was the first time we really thought about what we were doing. It was a new feeling that came to the band.”
Through its subsequent releases such as 2008’s brilliant The RPWL Experience CD (which featured “This Is Not a Prog Song”), RPWL built its international following to the point that it could establish and sustain its own record label, Gentle Art of Music. The label was born out of necessity. “Our distribution in Germany went bankrupt in 2008,” Lang said. “We had the chance to (sign with) another record company or do our own thing. If you have your own record company, you have the full freedom to do whatever you want. We had a good start, and it’s working out really fine.”
Land said the band members didn’t foresee one limitation of being their own bosses, however: “It’s even harder to give yourself money than to give someone else money. But we get to give other bands the chance to put their music out.” The label has released albums from a variety of European bands including Subsignal (produced by Lang) and Frequency Drift, along with Lang’s solo album No Decoder (2010) and albums from Wallner’s side project, Blind Ego.
Touring regularly throughout Europe, RPWL has become a popular live act, presenting elaborate concerts such as A New Dawn, an elaborate scripted show that featured costumed actors and additional singers in a rock opera based on the songs of Wanted. This production was released on DVD in 2017 to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary.
Just prior to that release, RPWL also went back to its roots for two live albums celebrating the music of its main inspiration: RPWL Plays Pink Floyd (2015) and RPWL Plays Pink Floyd's "The Man and The Journey" (2016). For the latter, the band reconstructed an early conceptual Floyd concert that at that point was unreleased (it did come out later that year as part of the Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965–1972 box set).
Lang recalled how the band reconstructed this legendary concert: “A good friend of mine had a record store, and he found this bootleg from Amsterdam where they played the whole show. It was a real mess, because as far as I know they didn’t even have a monitor system. But it was so musically interesting. So I played it to the guys and said, ‘Okay, let’s do that show.’ They just looked at me as if I was crazy. But we worked on it and to me, the very heart of Floyd is the jamming, and out of the jamming comes the song. It was so much fun to recreate it.”
While RPWL has forged its own sound, the band still feels the Floyd influence strongly—and proudly. Lang spoke of recording No Decoder, which featured longtime Pink Floyd touring bassist Guy Pratt, saying, “It was funny, because we had one song recorded, and I played it for him once. I asked him, ‘Should I write the chords down for you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No, it sounds familiar.’ And he played it in one take!”
The Floyd influence can be heard on Tales From Outer Space, especially on the track “Welcome to the Freak Show,” which features a drum solo section reminiscent of a similar part on “Time” from the classic Dark Side of the Moon. “Our drummer used Roto Toms, and I remember when we recorded it, he played this part, and I said, ‘Oh wow, this sounds very much like ‘Time,’ but at that moment, Kalle came in and said ‘Yes!’ This is one of the fun parts of the band—you don’t have limits. What you feel is good.”
The lighter approach of Tales From Outer Space’s music and themes also carries over to the album’s graphics. While previous RPWL releases creatively utilized photography, the new CD has a comic book-style cover that evokes 1950s science fiction comics. In fact, the collector’s box version of the album has a comic book with illustrated versions of the stories from the album’s seven tracks.
This spirit of fun will carries into the live presentation of Tales From Outer Space. “We are writing a concept for the live show,” he said. “It won’t be as big as (the presentation for) Wanted, where we had screens on every side of the venue. With this show, I want to have a concept specific to this album. There’s no need to make it bigger (than the last one).”
While RPWL is based in Germany, it does have fans in America, and the band played some festivals here in the early 2000s. Asked about the chances of a return to these shores, Lang said, “It would be great. But coming across the ocean is always a big money thing. It’s hiring the equipment and bringing all of the people over. When the chance is there, we are there, of course. It was so much fun playing (East Coast prog-rock festival) RoSfest, for example, because people in the states are really interested in the music. I like that. At some places in Germany, you have the feeling that they are there because they didn’t get tickets for the cinema.”
For now, the best place for American fans to get their RPWL fix is on the band’s website, rpwl.net, as well as on most popular digital platforms. Following the release of Tales From Outer Space and touring for the album, both Lang and Wallner plan to record new solo albums. From there, Lang sees a long life ahead for RPWL, and hopes the band’s music is as influential to today’s listeners as his favorite bands were to him.
“The music that you grew up with is the influence that you will always have. Kalle will always be a kid of the '80s. He grew up with music I never heard. We have a studio with a big recording room. I always hear from the other side when he is turning up the music very loud with the doors open, and you hear this Def Leppard thing. That is good, whereas I am more from the '70s. But I think the music you heard when you were young is still very strong in you, even when you make your own music.”