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