Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Installment 29 • Experimedia label profile

ASYMMETRICAL HEAD Feeling Sorry For Inanimate Objects



KOEN PARK Everything in Shadow

'Experimental' is an appellation that's been bandied about increasingly to the point where its currency has been somewhat devalued. It's presumably whatever residual caché there might be in this term that Ohio-based label and arts organization, Experimedia, seeks to draw on in choosing to hang this sign above their web-window. Whether or not it has effectively served such a purpose is debatable, it's a term that's always been liable to repel more than it attracts. But the crucial thing here is the capacity 'experimental' has to signal to a particular type of music user something challenging, something that will make demands of this intrepid audio-explorer, but that will ultimately reward, and transform the listener from simple passive consumer of commodified product to something higher. Yes, there is work to be done with the 'Experimental' (we understand), but implied is that the fruits are that much sweeter for those who do the work.

So, to the wares on offer. Experimedia deals in digital and physical publication and promotion of music and visual arts it deems interesting. Its catalogue covers a broad stylistic range taking in ambient, electronica, electro-acoustic, experimental, sound-art, microsound, glitch, avant-garde, and minimalist. It has lately raised its profile, with label curator, Jeremy Bible, putting himself about through various forums and modes, not least of which his own musical project with sidekick, Jason Henry. Ramping up Experimedia's physical release output (most have been digital download), Bible & Henry propose two offerings along with three others: from veteran avant-ophile, Illusion Of Safety, and newer acts, Asymmetrical Head and Koen Park.

Experimedia CDs come with strong visual linkages, those of Bible and Henry tucked into tall, three-panel fold-out packaging with artwork featuring nature forms photographically translated to abstract. This pair of releases evidences these sound artists’ rudeness of musical health. Vector is an affair of gritty atmospheric driftzones, all discreet swathes of granular oceanism washed in mercury. Residing in an interzone between sound art and music, paradigms of indeterminacy and structure contend for dominance at various points. Parallelling the visuals of the artwork, forces of abstraction and dissonance pull conventional musical instrumentation away from melody and consonance. The production style has a corroded and abraded feel, with piano and cello consorting with processed voices and percussive crackle, seeking to register themselves over the dust-blown contours of its frayed canvas. Tracks like “Alska” checks in to Jeck land, scuffed vinyl and loop-base swept by a chill wind from nowhere and steely industrial-strength noise. Metallic mesh fused with static rumble swarms over “Fndt” in a sticky forest ambience. The nightmare quotient of Vector tends to grow as it proceeds, with the queasy “Vctr” ramping up to the discomfiting “Lmp”, the set reaching closure in unquiet quietude.
is broader in its stylistic range, and more approachable overall (less 'experimental'?! You decide...) with a more open sound field, less prone to settling density and noise-mongering incursions. The eponymous tracks bookending the set are relatively serene driftscapes, largely composed of horn-like smears of tonal figure stretched across ambiguous evacuated ground edged with rustling and fibrillating field matter. For reference points, look no further than the lately quiescent Paul Schütze, notably on the apocalyptic nightscape that is “Dstromsh”, all time-stretched sound-spectres, an ill trumpet wind (more Kondo than Hassell) blowing through it. Elsewhere are the crepuscular expanses of “Yetisltk” and “Yetiatk”, “Sphotnblp” toying with tintinnabulations, “Luupn” playing with processed pianistics, and “Cldstrct” creeping with string striations. Overall Shpwrck finds fascinating fusions of crepitating atmospherics, environmental effluvia and unforeseen against-the-grain elements, infused with the spirit of early Schaefferian musique concrète, to articulate an engrossing shadowy imagism.

Next up is a new set from Illusion of Safety, a name long established in the vanguard of experimental post-industrial soundscaping. Dan Burke has been active across three decades - albeit far less lately, with a score of CDs on fierce labels like Die Stadt and Staalplaat under his belt. The Need to Now, a punning paranoid title alluding to the machinations of the military and intelligence services, provides for a new generation to encounter IOS's dystopian collaging, corrosive archaeologies, and nervous atmospherics. Burke’s late-period work, wrought from electronics, laptop and contact-miked hand-held objects along with samplings of radio, TV and vinyl, has a less spattered audio-canvas. It's more liable to interleave its tight-wound viscous ambiences with suspenseful lacunae. There are still the same up-close field recordings and obscure objects of acousmatic desire, and IOS continues to indulge his proclivity for sudden transitions, from fearful din to brooding near-beauty. Bricolages of distended voices, samples, rhythms and altered instrumentation predominate. The quietude of “Lost” is wracked by low-level swirls of whistling tones, crepuscular ambiance, and faux-naif melodic delicacies in surreal juxtaposition with the prevailing toxicity. “A Purpose” crawls through a gloopy femme-vox morass, infested with all manner of clicks, cuts, whirrs, whorls, and wooze, and synth irruptions. And “About When” takes a wrong turn into a lounge jazz cocktail nightmare, as writhing concoctions slip-slide into passages of distorted music-band and plinkety piano playing. Overall Burke summons an unholy gathering of discreet charm, malignant metal and fizzing field tones in unheimlich manoeuvres, fermenting immersive tracts of perturbance and unease. Recommended for lovers of immersion in perturbance.

Asymmetrical Head is Orlando FL-based William Rosario, who flies under multivariate colours, covering bases from post-industrial machine-funk, EBM and electro influences on the one hand to 90s Ambient and IDM stylings, with a smattering of broken beats, hip-hop method, even a dub(step) nod. Though traces of the founding fathers of these musical states, the likes of Kraftwerk and Public Enemy indirectly, Aphex Twin, Autechre, The Orb, and FSOL more directly, are detectable, Feeling Sorry For Inanimate Objects is very much sui generis. It's an intriguing collection that, no sooner you may think you have it pinned down, veers off down new avenues, seeking other folds and fusions. The familiar refuses to be tagged lest it risk breeding contempt, seeking a shack-up with something alien for exotic trans-fusions. So while “White Elephant” lets loose guitar funk and synth-squelch on a spidery rhythm base to make neo-tribal retro-futurist electro- (it has to be heard!), “Pig Lizard” entertains a close encounter of the queasy kind with an unsettled ambient descended from some of SAW II’s more ambiguous elevator-scapes. “Abandoned Bike”, on the other hand, channels distant techno signals through the old industrial blender. The long-form finale, “Beartrap in the Ocean?”, goes back through just about every styling in the electronicists’ style guide, letting itself be eaten for a moment by a glitch-fuelled noise-demon, before surprising with song-lines, keyboard warmth, squirrely acidisms, even string and woodwind interpolations. Quite a trip in this particular Experimedia ship.

Finally in this round-up there's Koen Park, known to his Mum (whose garage in South London apparently provides a base for part of his split-site operations) as Ian Hawgood. Dividing his time between here and a small flat in Tokyo, he peddles a lo-fi electro-hip-hop-pop-folk-shoegaze hybrid goes... vintage keyboards, circuit bent casios, drums, piano, field recordings, melodica, harmonium, glockenspiels, samplers, drum machines, live drums, field recordings, effects pedals, tape recorders, and computers. Sixteen tracks, many of them sub-minute cameos, come clustered in an hour of Everything in Shadow. From the outset “An Urban Rose” sets a pleasant downtempo tone that speaks of BoC couched in the language of lo-fi bedroom chill. Mention of BoC is not idle here, for Koen Park deals in that same vocabulary of hazy wistfulness, of children’s chatter and off-stage patter, warbly-spangly analogue keys, also with the groovy beats, ja. On “Your Broadcast” a certain remote melancholia plays about the edges, offset by Ninja Tune-type funky drummer loops, an oft-present element providing a sometime needed bounce or ballast. Two more lengthy pieces conclude the set. “I Fall Into You” and “Wake Me, It's Time To Sleep” are more consciously reflective, especially the latter. The former retains the serene synth motifs, letting them disport themselves among babble and broken-beat, bird calls and insects, and mellifluous guitar motifs. The latter is more experimental soundscaping than the backwoods neo-chill of the early part of the album, yielding to guitar atmospherics somewhere between étude and simple exploratory plucking, rustles and whooshing fragments sweeping and panning across the soundfield in a sea of viscous flotsam. The bedroom poetry of Everything in Shadow comes from an attractively nostalgic stable, carefully crafted with a deliberate insouciance, and imbued with a lively fertile spirit which wins Hawgood some latitude for some less substantial material along the way. • ALAN LOCKETT

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Installment 28 • Symbolic Interaction label profile

ANXIO GREEN Autumn Honey
RUDI ARAPAHOE Echoes From One To Another

DIF:USE Mandrake



IZUMI MISAWA Speaking behind the Raindrops

DAVID NEWLYN Relatively Down


THE RETAIL SECTORS The Starlight Silent Night

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Silence was Warm

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Silence was Warm vol.2



ZEBRA The Black & White Album

Symbolic Interaction is a recently established label operating out of Yamanashi, Japan, founded by Kentaro Togawa. Its ambit of ambient, electronica, shading marginally into indie/post-rock territory, declares an affinity with the likes of Type and Miasmah, on the one hand, U-cover, n5md, and fellow Japanese imprint, Plop, on the other. While there's a world between the uber-elegant ethereal cinematics of Rudi Arapahoe and the chugging guitar concatenations of boss Togawa’s The Retail Sectors, the releases under review here suggest a coherent spine around which a fairly diverse roster of artists may spiral, from a closely cloistered 'A' (Anzio Green) to a more free-floating 'Z' (Zebra).

First up, then, is Anzio Green, a project which sees Mark Streatfield (aka Zainetica) and Wil Bolton (aka Cheju) conspire to sell a dummy to those anticipating a beat-slathered set of IDM pop-tronica. Previous form on their own imprints (Rednetic and Boltfish respectively) proves deceptive, as their first collab, Autumn Honey, turns out a quite different tidbit; while not wholly abstaining from rhythmicity, it largely targets reflective atmospherics and nature-inspired soundscapes, the latter partly prompted by track titles referencing skies, mountains and rivers. Streatfield and Bolton use conventional sources – predominantly electronics, keyboards, and guitars - the resulting five pieces hosting gentle cross-currents of guitar and electric pianoid melodic embellishments. Early Arabesque overtones yield to less exotic but still evocative pads layered with melodies traced by guitar lines. Overall AG seek to enshroud themselves in unwonted frequencies, spooling out creative couplings of acoustic-electronic over extended tracks. These tend to configure themselves into swell-relent surge-recede patterns in tonal swathes, here arcing in crystalline timelines, there stretching serpentine to imaginary horizons.

Hybridising compositional strategies come from sound artist Rudi Arapahoe, who choreographs a sequence of elegiac pieces into a refined whole in Echoes From One To Another. Perhaps the most liable of the whole SI roster to be embraced by contemporary home listening electronicists, Arapahoe's opus is the catalogue's most artful and fully developed in conceptualisation and realisation. Essentially a sonically-mediated journey from the moment of death through veiled passageways into the hereafter, EFOtA mixes equal parts Pärt-ian holy minimalism with the ambient and post-classicisms of the Sylvain Chauveau-Max Richter camp and the gentler non-rock end of post-rock (Helios). A discreet distillate of Akira Rabelais’ Spellewauerynsherde suggests itself via the fluttering and floating of hauntological female voices mixing with breathy flutings. An incantatory mise-en-scène develops, a remote hiss and shadowy aura suffusing proceedings with designer mystique, as discreet electronics rub gently against chamber-esque strummings of harp or guitar, or wistful piano wringing heartstrings. The whole falls in with the recent fixation with a sort of nouveau electronic purism, with pianistics and guitarings a la Sakamoto-Noto or Nishimoto (cf. Monologue) to the fore. Still Arapahoe does well to occupy more desolate-delicate territory rather than the doom-ism of recent kindred spirit output from the Type/Miasmah axis of evil. Notice should, however, be served that there are times when the spiritual overtones may waft rather too strongly for those not totally comfy with such edges-of-New Age-flirting aromas, be they howsoever therapeutic.

Dif:use apparently started out as a laptop supergroup, including Don and Roel Funcken (Funckarma, Quench et al.), Cor Bolten (Mecano, Legiac), Hanno Leichtman (Static), and others. Several years on the Dif:use jus is reduced to Don and Roel with Cor member Bolten assisting. The brothers, already familiar to beat-driven IDM/electronica heads under multiple aliases, work it out in largely beat-shunning mode in this incarnation. Sure, Mandrake is dynamic and in forward motion, but distinctly less muscular than their customary strain. Dif:use is definitely the nearest the Funckens have come to an ambient setting, albeit one characterised by their particular hyperactive take on electronic texturalism, weaving spectral voices and strings into a synthetic stew with a myriad of unidentified floating sounding objects. Their dub-infused sensibility manifests in a production in which echo and reverberation abound, the overall hallucinogenic effect recalling previous Sending Orbs work as Legiac. At times the air kicked up by the mass of sounds and effects gets a little stuffy, and would benefit from a lighter more minimal touch, but overall a sophisticated set of digital soundscaping results, with all manner of processed drones and waveforms spooling out, here into Namlook-esque interstellar overdrive there into sci-fi lullaby.

Oakland producer Dustin Craig is behind Headphone Science’s excursion into pretty poptronica, Painted. Fluttering textures swirl amidst a slew of ambient vocal samples on opener “5CM”, with station and airport announcements and engine roar patching into the drifting ennui of nonplace lingering and loss. “Life is a Dream” is a representative specimen, wherein an ultra-pretty keyboard motif resonates from within a teeming mass of machine clatter. Elsewhere Craig tends to put melodic figure too literally at the centre, as in the pianoid post-classicisms of “Makoto and Mai”, appeasing with blithe beats. The whole affair is one of light bites with light beats, in fact. Of the five remixes annexed to the set, Sokif lards glockenspiels over “Life is a Dream,” and in so doing tips the original over into blandishment and tweeness; Electricwest (Patrick Benolkin) does it better, injecting satisfying space and welcome wooze into his ambient hip hop hybridisation of “Spirits at Night”; Fugenn & The White Elephants finds in “Clouded in Treasures” an old-school ambient-techno/IDM workout of bleepy-bloop and banging and “Coil Online” is lost in translation by Broken Haze into a broken beat-cum-deep-chillout affair squiggled all over by pitchshifted piano graffiti. The Retail Sectors (Kentaro Togawa) re-conceives “Makoto & Mai” the only way he knows, completely removing it from its source sketch, and rendering it as a somewhat laboured postrock-meets-indie guitar workout.

Lowriders Deluxe is the work of four gents for whom this is the first collaboration. Mark Streatfield and Joseph Auer, beat-centric electronica-mongers known from other projects and labels (Zainetica, Cyan341, Rednetic, U-Cover) handle the keyboards and rhythms. The two team up here with guitarists Simon Thomas and Clive Burns, each player contributing processed percussion and FX to cook up an IDM-ambient fusion stew. Cocteau Twins, Spaceman 3 and Slowdive are all namechecked as influences, and Future Deluxe certainly has something of their spirit secreted within its folds and rhizomes. A post-Pygmalion paradigm pokes through on “Offworld Colonies” and “Test 4 (Alternative Version)”, while the whole swims in a distillation of the ethereal reverb haze of Robin Guthrie. “Interlude” and “Internal 1” draw upon hip hop-tinged IDM templates more Streatfield’s end of the street, while reminiscent overall of the old-school 'ELM' of Global Communication and Black Dog evidently more Auer's. Much of the album in fact locates itself at the intersection between the two main protagonists’ styles – between deep Detroit and a more shadowy retro-futurism, the air filled with warm Warp winds and AI airs.

Speaking Behind The Raindrops begins ominously with xylophone and toy piano plonking, and a deliberately childlike voice intoning what might be doggerel or something about chocolate (clue: it’s called “Chocolate”). Izumi Misawa threatens to unleash a grisly playroom affair of J-pop lounge whimsy, which gratifyingly fails to fully manifest despite the uber-cutesy cast list of “vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, kalimba, moon-bell, hand cranked music box, kawai-toy piano, Schoenhut toy piano, bass-melodion, MFB, ion, CS-01, voice, kaoss-pad, effect, rooms, toys, many many percussions...” The ill-starred start in fact presages an odd assortment which is nowhere near as twee or queasy as the prologue suggests. Second piece, "Pray For Rain", turns its keyboards away from path of tweeness toward Reichian marimba minimalism, which, along with various chimes and processed effluvia and a discreet lulling beat, conspires to create a far more alluring piece of faux-chill electronica. "Chairs" follows up with further substance, locating emergent patterns of electro-blips within a subtle kick-throb and liquid bass, before coating this in musique concrète curlicues, and Misawa's treated vox to create an avant J-Pop confection akin to a minimalised Bjork in tandem with Tujiko Noriko. The rest is less arresting, but replete with a ferment of abstract electronics, slightly wonky textures, found sound, field recordings. A cornucopia of processed plonkings and tuned tappings in effect. Would appeal to questing lovers of electro-acoustic bedroom-fiddlers, like the 'C's - Cokiyu, Caroline - and maybe a touch of the 'P's too - Psapp, Piana, et al.

Relatively Down sees David Newlyn move away from Boltfish beats (present albeit sparsely on Ancient Lights) towards a more arrhythmic ambience. Short pieces involving processed field recordings providing peripheral resonance to solo guitar (cf. Moteer/Mobeer material) or piano études (cf. Library Tapes, Peter Broderick, et al.). The relatively more developed “Overview” differs in being a stretched out drone work. Newlyn has a way of adding an element of dissonance and quiet drone to transform what would otherwise be simplistic muzak pluck or plonk - details such as backwards fibrillations, a light feedback halo attending a piano part, or discreet treatments to acoustic guitar. The album as a whole is dream-like and pretty but parts of it feel like reprises not only of earlier tracks but of more of the same kind of pleasant parlour formalisms we’ve been getting the last few years from neo-classical inclined recontextualists from Max Richter to Helios/Goldmund. The mid-point "Send Me a Postcard" rather ruptures the dream-feel by going Boltfish, with tip-tap boxy-beats, plinky piano and retro synth wibble. The aforementioned “Overview” provides a return to atmospheric form, though a regrettable return to beaty blandishments a la Album Leaf is made, further disturbing the tone of designer naturalism set in the album's early passages. Ultimately, Relatively Down’s UK provenance and its appearance on a Japanese imprint find congruence in a certain unassuming Haiku-esque ellipsis.

The Retail Sectors’ Subject Unknown features label supremo Kentaro Togawa, who spins out ten axe-mediated pieces of string-driven things, while the likes of Si Begg, Maps and Diagrams, and Headphone Science provide remixes that seek to further extend the tracks’ possibilities. The album reverses the expected sequence by starting out with the remixes, none of which set the tone for the bulk of what is to follow. Tracks like “The Distress” and “The Lonely Shy Boys Fly To Sky Again and Again” are representative of the Retail Sectors house style, lyrical lattice-works of guitar chime and blur earnestly noodled out over a moody monobrow drum and bass bedrock. Subject Unknown is generally more at the contemplative and wistful end of the post-rock spectrum, though a frequent compositional strategy sees the well-modulated guitar tones turned to fuzz-buzz squalls to give the music extra heft. The Starlight Silent Night finds Togawa re-asserting this manifesto of sonic intent, the aforementioned weaving of guitar-pluckery with song-propelling drum machinery sounding much like what would have ensued had Yellow 6 gone over to Morr Music to do a series of instrumental indietronica covers of bands from, say, Explosions In The Sky to Interpol. A veritable orgy of plectronica, of strum’n’bass, of post-rock with a mid-80s style of drum machine thwack, this is evidently an earlier oeuvre, characterised by a certain uncultured and unfettered spirit. Togawa’s whisper-to-a-scream strategy is already much in evidence, with quiet-loud juxtapositions of crystal chord concatenations (“The First Step to Fly Again”, “Finally, People Unconsciously Hope That Their Savior Die”) and uncouth fuzz-blur lacerations (climaxes of “Forlorn Dreamland” and “Song About a Girl Who Killed Herself Yesterday”). Perhaps here Togawa's headstrong naiveté might be seen by some as one of the album's strengths.

Those wishing to sample SI’s wares without full commitment to this or that artist may avail themselves of the facility offered by the two compilations the label has put out in the short period of its operations. Its first full compilation, The Silence Was Warm, shows it to be no slouch in the genre, showcasing several of their key roster men: Library Tapes (a pretty piano etude awash in vinyl crackle), Headphone Science (an elegant piano-based piece), and The Retail Sectors himself (a stately weave of chiming electric guitars and bass with a flame-broiled, drum-based attack escalating to a climactic roar). The set further serves to provide a platform for kindred spirit Japanese-based practitioners in the melodic electronica and ambient post-rock sphere: Tanaka Munechika, Oba Masahiro, and Aus (Yasuhiko Fukuzono), not to mention UK-types from Cactus Island like Maps & Diagrams and Weave.
The Silence Was Warm Volume 2
repeats the eclectic recipe of mellow electronica, neo-classical and post rock stylings, while extending it over two discs. SI rosterites like David Newlyn and Lowriders Deluxe are joined by natural bedfellows - Bitcrush, Ontayso, Yellow6, D_rradio, Cheju, and Quiroga, among other less familiar names - for a double dose. An array of cameos that serve to survey the range of stylings and archaeologies in the field while simultaneously seeking to provide a coherent thesis. CD2 achieves this latter more efficacy than the first, refined electronic pop of a 12k-Plop-Moteer stripe predominating, with the likes of Moskitoo, Aus, Pawn, and Phon-noir proposing well-turned out pieces. The album moves gradually towards more IDM-inflected atmospherica as it progresses, but is still recognisably SI-styled.

As if David Wenngren had not already conceived a sound attenuated, dusty and minimal enough with his Library Tapes project, there's now his Xeltrei, a new venture with a Swedish collaborator named Erica. Litotes is a half-hour set of short pieces that combine piano with atmospherics wrought from field recordings and computer processing. The piano presents with the same sparse blur of decayed resonance as Wenngren self-plagiarises his Library Tapes. Occasional peripheralia – distant train clatter, marine environments, winds, and ghost machinery - add further atmospherics. The air of an archaeology of found fragments or artefacts prevails. The various found sounds and effects enhance atmosphere with a by now familiar anti-veneer of dirtied air and incidental noise scuffery. There’s an air of decay and mortality, and, again, an alignment with a tradition of similarly inclined work – of fragility-flaunting minimalism – and names like Goldmund, Sylvain Chauveau, and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Litotes is in fact a literary trope in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. Thus one might feel inclined to observe that Xeltrei’s Litotes is an exercise in understatement which lives up to the aforementioned concept as a clever piece of musical forebearance that is nevertheless replete with meaning. Alternatively one might opine, litotically: not bad, not great. You decide.

Yaporigami, an artist characterized as purveying a breakcore-electronica-IDM hybrid, is trailed as dealing in “very sensitive subversive sounds by a Japanese paranoid.” His Saryu Sarva is, truth be told, less distinguished by sensitivity or subversion than duration, with CD2 taking the contours of CD1 of Yap’s origami and delivering them to be refolded into shapes resembling still-vibrant forms of the now-defunct Merck and Defocus roster. Names like Quench, Machinedrum, Jimmy Edgar, and COH illustrate the ambit of coverage. On CD1 Yaporigami generally trafficks in upbeat to blithe to wistful melodics smoothed over an assertive, at times hyperactive, breakbeat base. A notable pattern typically involves the juxtaposition of gentle with ungentle, tracks like “thirteen” and “thirty one” letting music box-like chimings get roughed up by post-junglist assault, while the ambiance of “Nomad” allows its blithe synth-tone coasting to be irrupted onto by bass attack. Elsewhere lie tenebrous micro-symphonics (“HulL”) and sci-fi meditations (“Ars”). CD2 reels out fifteen varying retoolings, some cleaving to Yaporigami's originals (Yee-King, Con Brio), while others recontextualise them with other flavourings: Quench hip-hops “HulL” up, Machinedrum boom-baps “Citroen” down, while Jimmy Edgar surprisingly lets “lie” lie in beatless drift serenity. Elsewhere to be found are dark techno gear (Reteric), more breakcore spatter (Yu Miyahsita), and the odd slo-mo darkside crafting (COH).

Zèbra's The Black & White Album is something of a shaggy dog stray finding a welcome within the SI homestead. According to Roel Meelkop and Frans de Waard (the man who gave you Goem, Kapotte Muziek, and Beequeen, among others), the recording was passed on by any number of potential patrons for being too off-kilter. And in fact much conceptual mischief and general oddity manifests, initially in external dressing, e.g. in scientific graphs with impenetrable textual commentaries, and track durations misrepresenting actual times. The set itself is a collage of techno and disco, noise-mongering, and sampledelic antics, “Dream Music for Diamand Redheads” being representative; it makes a tentative gestural nod towards Romanticist euphony before morphing into a marching slab of upright techno and a looped voice sample. “Last Night A DJ Saves My File” digitally as well as morphologically mangles Indeep’s 80s classic, peppering it with telephone rings and sundry spicy interpolations. In terms of sonic-conceptual forebears, de Waard and Meelkop's exercise in bricolage-styled playroom mischief - self-styled “meltpop” - bears a loop-y stamp that nods clearly towards the spirit of :zoviet*france, while the loony leaps from avant- to electro-/disco to pop remind of the likes of KLF or 808 State, or, in brief orgies of low-end technoid minimalism, nudge towards Pan Sonic. • ALAN LOCKETT

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Installment 27 • Tripping the Cerebellum / An overview of Brainwork

German electronic music of the past 30 or so years seems, at least to most aficionados, divided equally between two camps: post-Berlin school and post-techno. Perhaps this is a hasty, and broadly inaccurate observation, but face it: after Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze (not to mention Kraftwerk, Cluster, and a gaggle of other artists liberated from the confines of krautrock) burned their respective paths, many aspiring synthesists seemed to jettison original concepts for more easily constructed (and less cerebrally taxing) synth/sequencer hoedowns. Then along came techno, and then the very ambiguous “electronica” (slot within that enormous divide other sobriquets such as IDM and electronic listening music and ambient), and suddenly bedroom producers realized that the Teutonic regime didn’t have to mandate every note that emanated from their beloved Rolands. What really happened is that Germanic-based electronic music split off into two rarely overlapping concerns: those who preferred to slum in the TD/Schulze wasteland, and those energized enough by the worldwide electronic music movement to essentially abrogate pre-existing conditions.

Musician Uwe Saher’s career began in the early 90s, right in that murky gray area where what was known as EM crossed paths with the burgeoning post-techno/electronica scenes exploding across Britain and Europe. Like many Germanic technicians of the era, he possessed a modest home studio decked out with many of the obvious tools of the trade (synths of the aforementioned Roland variety, plus Akai, Oberheim, Korg, Yamaha, and numerous effects units), his first forays into composition particularly redolent of its time. A good portion of his back catalog is self-released, and some it issued by Joerg Strawe’s Cue label, all of which realized in the finest DIY tradition. Looking back across Saher’s catalog, now ten discs strong, reveals an artist perfectly aware of what was happening in the day, richly endowed by his Teutonic legacy but well-versed in the happenings occurring on a daily basis around him. The worldwide trance phenomenon was hardly lost on Saher, who inaugurated his Element 4 project just for that purpose, and though not on par with the more richly varied Brainwork material, shows he was just as adept at bringing home barnstorming dance music as his goa compadrés.

Listening now to his 1991 debut Sunrise, 17 years on in a world with a (to say the least) decidedly different musical climate, one might almost think it primitive, naïve even, and in many respects it is. Tracks such as “Dance of Dolphins” and “The Walk” are equal parts Jarre and Vangelis, irising synth sweeps that are often submerged in rapid-fire sequencer pulsations, but even from the outset it’s clear that Saher’s talents, nascent and evolving, were considerable. His gift for composition, and, yes, melody (sometimes a dirty word when discussing most European synth/sequencer artists), is evident and considerable; though all his recordings possess a wealth of arresting sounds, it’s important to understand that he obviously spent enormous time working out the best ways to make his synths sing. On the follow-up, Brainotronic, the entirety of the pieces make use of the “tronic” suffix in their titles (“Bellotronic”, “Funnytronic”, et al), and though somewhat gimmicky, Saher’s gift for play and compositional exuberance is heartily rendered throughout. Mind you, too, that these early records contain short, concise works; crafted during a time when the 20-minute piece was de rigueur in post-TD EM; Saher was practically alone amongst colleagues who never met a motif they didn’t like, or felt could go on for hours. Apparently, pieces like the Robert Schroeder-like “Rockotronic”, with its galloping drumbeats and triumphant synths, and “Discotronic”, which reoriented electro-pop for inheritors of the Teutonic blueprint, suited Saher’s mood just fine; this disc doesn’t remain stationary for nary a moment—brash, juiced-up and fiery, it often out-does Jarre at his own game, with a deeper bottom-end that Jean-Michel could only dream about.

Then along comes 1993’s Back to the Roots, and, sure to its title, all bets are off. We are now back in Dream-land, where the sequencer is king presiding over a phantastical landscape alive with kaleidoscopic electronics splattered vividly like a painter’s hues across an immense, stark white canvas. But, keeping to the credo imbuing his shorter works, Saher simply reapplies that technique to empower and flesh out the pieces here, giving both his ideas and machines the necessary room to breathe and radiate. The opening twelve minute “Singing Seas” again makes ample use of Schroeder-esque drum patterns, while Saher alternates between chords that coo, whistle, and pump up the rhythmic undertow. “Analogic” partakes of some of the more cerebral noises so beloved by TD circa Force Majeure or Tangram, strange spooky sounds that Saher weaves between crystalline arpeggios, burgeoning sequencer, and other shiny, reflective surfaces. The fifteen-minute “Desert Trail” benefits from quite a magnetic sequencer line that, although certainly on this side of Dream-y, percolates through a swirling soundscape just alien and awry enough to transcend simple genre music.

1994’s Rhythm Base is an altogether different kettle of fish. In fact, just four albums in, it’s evident Saher’s got a firm grip on his muse and knows how to massage it to his advantage. The “extra” sixth track is dedicated to The Orb, and, after experiencing this record in its entirety, one can surmise how Saher’s become quite taken with Paterson and co. In fact, Saher not only embraces similar Orbian infatuations with oscillating melodies and electronics that shift like great sonic tidal patterns (such as on “Aquanautic Excursion”), but, like Paterson, he truly gets in touch with his inner Froese here. Forget any charges of derivativeness, either; Saher’s morphed into quite the canny operator at this juncture, erecting a foundation that would only get richer in both tone and execution. But…drink deep of Rhythm Base first; this is the good stuff. “Slow Motion” might move at a languid pace, but the curlicue synths and bubbling sequencer motifs if anything suggest a lazy afternoon moonwalking. Saher revs up the title track with a whole fusillade of congas and shakers, the better of which props up the swelling symphony of chords with some chunky bass and fluttering keyboard stabs, so that right when those beefy snares kick in you realize you’re not in Berlin anymore, Toto. And that final extra track Saher so Orb-dedicated? A brilliant swab of ambient techno beauty it is, too, trancey synths, woozy bass and percussive magmas that also happen to channel Biosphere of the same era, and is every bit as galvanizing as whatever R&S, Rising High or Eye Q were throwing up at the time. One of Saher’s best records.

The following year Saher issued Brainwork V, Melody & Ambience, two hours of music sprawled out over two discs that seemed like both a culmination, mark of intent, and developmental statement all at once. There is an immense amount of music to ingest here, Saher honing his craft along dimensions previously charted (Vangelis’ influence remains keenly felt, as does the aforementioned Jarre, and, of course, the Berlin School grads), but across the records’ breadth Saher continues to push against the constrictions of genre music, in manners reasonably successful by any measure. Stylistic embroidery and rampant eclecticism aside, enough wonderful sounds dance out of the stereofield to satisfy both the jaded and virginal. Disc one, the “Melody” section, does travel in varying moods and architectures: “A Small Movement” and “Memories”, for example, sport fetching, almost catchy percussive tracts amidst their brightly thwacked synth constructs that stop just short of being cloying thanks to Saher’s innate economy of means. “Warm Wind” and “Jamaican Holidays” both dabble a bit in new-agey climates that doesn’t do the rest of the record any favors, a path that Saher will indulge in soon enough; a sense of “melancholy” and personal issues seems to permeate the “Melody” disc for the most part, but Saher’s one for generosity when it comes to spreading the wealth. The second disc, nicked “Ambience”, sets the controls for the heart of the sun, redeeming most everything that’s come before it, Saher letting those Berlin influences erupt in cataclysmic glory. “Sonic Vortices” vibrates and weaves its sequencer filigree in sumptuous, technological delight, Saher’s synths glittering like the light of refracted stars. “Liquid Mind” begins with a subdued electronic thrush that recalls Patrick O’Hearn’s earliest missives, but once Saher brings in the interstellar sound sources that twinkle in the background, there’s no doubt we’re in wide-eyed space music territory for sure, planetarium-poised for quick liftoff. Beautiful.

It was surely only a matter of time before Saher plied his trade in front of an appreciative audience, and that became reality with the unveiling of 1996’s Live & Unreleased, culled from performances given in 1993 and 95. Saher dips into his already respectable back catalog to excavate some chestnuts ripe for the picking, sliding easily back and forth between zippy ambient techno tropes and full-on Berlin School orchestrations. That he can juggle these respective genres so effortlessly demonstrates a grace gained from the expense of getting to know his synths real up close and personal. Aided and abetted by guitarist Gerd Lubos (who also helms the post-TD-inflected Strange Inside) no doubt adds some differing textures and a sharper contour to Saher’s aural fantasies, but by no means is Lubos mere window dressing—if anything, his respectably tasty licks and wailing cries suggest a choice Radio Massacre International set, albeit minus a third hired hand. So what arises is the zesty “Black Seagull”, which imagines what Rupert Hine might have done to Berlinische kosmische had he worked with Froese and Co. instead of The Fixx, Lupos’ expertly slicing his way through Saher’s beatbox bounce and candy-coated synths. “Mindwaves” wraps and whorls its symphonic strings around some more engaging 90s techno rhythms, ear confectionary of the highest order, but the album’s centerpiece is surely the 19 minute live version of “Sonic Vortices”, which finds Saher’s synths in rapid transit, his sequencers the stuff of locomotive dreams, choreographed in stark, repetitive tonalities that fairly ignite the atmosphere.

It was at this point in the mid 90s that Saher seemed to reach a stylistic impasse of sorts in his music. He’d been steadily releasing an album at roughly yearly intervals, clearly a man keen to mark out his time instead of trucking in quickdraw redundancies. His work, to again draw comparisons with Robert Schroeder, began to take on more “personal” qualities that briefly flirted with “new age” connotations. 1997’s Sensual Reflections, much like Schroeder’s Pegasus, is a more casually “elegant” affair, adrift with laissez-faire synths, arrangements buttressed by dew-eyed trip-hop rhythms, and music courting commercial avenues Saher seemed to ignore in years past. It’s his least demanding, and possibly least interesting, recording, but it’s not without its moments: “Dreaming China” uses the kind of Oriental spliffs favored by the era’s most crass Narada artists but survives thanks to Saher’s reliance on synths that skyjump instead of saccharinize. “Thrill Zone” revisits slow trance territory, its punchy bassline and opulent beats a feature in numerous techno dreams of late 90s chillout rooms, but for the most part Saher appears too preoccupied with the clichés already becoming rampant and stillborn at the time, the flavors of which drag most of these compositions through the mud.

In retrospect, Sensual Reflections now indeed feels like the aberration in Saher’s catalog that it appeared to be at the time; later (and most recent) successive recordings bear this out. Back to Future brings back the Berlin School model in all its stripped down glory, except that the artist has apparently discovered the joys of British drum 'n' bass, sending his brash sequencers tumbling amidst a spiky forest of whiplashed snares, upping his BPMs to near frantic levels. The opening “4AM Machines” illustrates this brilliantly, Saher ensnarling a sequencer line of hyperdriven extremes smack dab in the middle of a veritable tornado of chopping synth effects. “Sanddunes” continues the assault on the listener’s imaginarium, though Saher does in fact tone down his propulsion systems to encompass a more immersive sonic landscape; LTJ Bukem this isn’t, but, then again, Saher doesn’t pretend to be, as he’s just as comfortable ekeing out his own singular voice amongst the d & b glitterati. Infectious, to coin a descriptor, lively in execution and engaging as all get out. 2006’s Soundclouds then does a literal about-face, trading beat-jiggery for the more familiar realms of abject space. It is of course the space environs long explored by numerous Germanic astronauts previously, but over the years Saher’s hardly lost his way with a sequenced phrase—such exalted moments arise here pretty much constantly. “Rainpearls” gusts across barren plains, riding currents of prismatic bursts of percussion, at turns majestic and enigmatic. Saher is back to unspooling his creations across double-digit lengths, and the results are fairly remarkable. “Silverlake” could easily be a lost Schulze piece from the 70s, except that Saher’s whooshing Moogs and bedazzled choruses sound utterly contemporary—no mean feat. The 15 minute “Sky Trains” is the highlight, though, vaporous squalls emerging out of a black sky to do battle with coarse synths spitting metal and beats industrialized out of silicone jelly, the kind of piece the Front Line Assembly chaps wished they could concoct out of Delerium if only they weren’t so myopic. Saher’s course of action, all pomp and circumstance, trumps such notions, in spades.

Which brings us to the present, and Saher’s most recent outing, the 2008-released Ten, so-christened as an anniversary release for the artist in addition to his, well, tenth Brainwork document. Saher makes no bones about this being an unabashed Berlin School “homage”, which it most gloriously is. The man obviously delights and remains transfixed with the art of old-school analog synthesis, where the tactile twisting of knobs and flicking of relays made such hands-on necessities the prime component of much classic synth music from the pre-digital eon. As such, Ten not only feels like a summation to some degree, it reaffirms Saher’s uncontested command of his studio, its tools, and those beloved, crusty, molten metal sounds. “Traffic” churns and burns, its sputtering sequencers infused by the power of a thousand transformers. “Atlantica” erupts out of the stereofield like a supernova, Saher squeezing what little air is left out of his patchcords, his electronics atomizing the studio. “Pacifica”, all 21 minutes of it, is so enthralling in its beautifully etched simplicity—a low-strung rhythmic figure moving up and down the scale, enshrouded in glowing LED readouts and the luster of distant synth starshine—it should read as a template for any young upstart completely unaware of what to do with his newly acquired modulars. Across a still-evolving palette of recordings, it’s evident Saher’s in firm control of his inner dualities; all Brainwork and much play ensures Uwe’ll never be a dull boy. DARREN