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Conduit & Torque [2]

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Dusted's tobias c. van veen takes a look at a few albums from the past few months in the second installment of his semi-regular series.

Conduit & Torque [2]

Sometimes it’s best to drift through a number of recordings as a kind of audio tourist. While cultural tourism is a charge most of us would rather avoid, reproducing as it does the dominant and banal stereotypes of “observing” another culture as if its inhabitants were specimens (although something almost unavoidable and inherent to our nature), not to mention taking place as a form of (often not too) covert colonialism, perhaps the best approach to large quantities of music is a kind of drift, which would be something altogether different than a touristic snapshop. Genuflection sans the video recording of every sombrero. Afterall, listening to CDs from all the planet’s corners is a kind of exercise in losing one’s sense of context. How can one review a CD scripted in the hot sun of Vienna, the heat of India, the cold of Canada? Each has its particularity which might ring true in a way ill-considered had we not drifted through its inception. Undoubtedly there are sines between ground and sound, sonic topologies and geographies of soundwaves that all require some years of listening before ears become attenuated (and unfortunately, often jaded).

Since 1990 Ken Ikeda has been keeping a “sound diary,” and as the front cover of Merge (Touch) depicts the islands of Japan, the back cover frames a misty day in New York City’s Central Park. Tones and hums transit these two existences to the technological globe. Long pulses and waves, without compromise, introduction or explanation perfunct this disc—sketches, impulses, skitterish juxtapositions, curvatures, uncanny compositions that never fully resolve their imbalance, like a soft, plush chair that forever sinks into the weirdest of positions. These linear strategies trace a vertiginous path: getting up and moving around the room designates a differential listening experience as sound interacts and bounces from all the objects. Like a diary abstracting the content of confession, this remains intense and personal work rendered in the palette of fundamental building blocks, like a towering Rothko and its swathes of color, moving from the bright effusion of light to the dark.

Nothing is weirder to follow than Fritz Ostermayer’s Kitsch Concrète, which is this kind of beer hall music with vague hints of demented, heavy German lyrics, mild feedback and thick, lumbering rhythms that go on and on into the utterly oddest realms of indulgence and cringing, sweaty pain. Remember that scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Hunter S. Thompson writes that the Circus Circus is what the whole world would be doing if the Nazis had won the war? Right. I turned this up real, real loud. I’m trying not to conjure too many stereotypes of Germans in Lederhosen, but the retro-Phil-Collins-Genesis era spoken word segments on “Alpharhythmen,” with what sounds like a child rapping in slow motion, is downright freaky. I don’t understand, but I like it. Comparisons to Captain Beefheart inevitable, although only in surface appearance: the rhythm and arrrangement are anything but (musique) concrete and unlike Beefheart, no free jazz exploration underlies these ballads and molasses waltzs.

Let’s get away from the pseudo-intellectualization of music for a minute and return to something I love: dance music. Dub Taylor, from what I can remember of late-90s techno bin harvesting, popped up with a number of discrete, quiet and extraordinarily minimalist dub techno releases. I have a few of them, if only for the utter silent characteristics they displayed and their incredibly sustained track lengths. Taylor’s Experience, however, on Forcetracks (FT60, 2003), is a step removed from the early focus on dub, opening with an immediate seachange: that of house, albeit with techno’s repetition and dub’s counter-echoes. And opening with a glittering debut: “Before You Go” samples the phrase “This is the winter of my discontent,” oft-remixed but rarely understood, that phrase from Shakespeare’s Richard III that predicates the slow slide toward madness and destruction. Like the line, the tempo, the fabric of this song is neither dark nor depressive. Rather, it is ethereal, open, akin to MRI or an upbeat Luomo (Frivolous’ later productions also betray this quality). Ambient pads drift over in peace, a restful energy propels each movement. It is sad, but only in a sunrise kind of way: in other words, it reflects on the qualities that made techno music, in the broadest sense, so damn good in the first place: it evokes memories of things, it says “we may never meet again,” it cherishes the moment with only a few words, even if these things, of which we remember, are collective fictions. This is also a koan.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
[Gloucester, Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1]

The rest of the album follows suite, exploring different tones and recombinations of what it means to say “techno” one moment, “house” the next. The two blend—house production with techno insistence. Dub Taylor, otherwise known as Alex Krüger, displays his colours, and they are fabulous—a plumed serpent, a rainbow of beauties that refracts like a cozy corner of your favourite club, lit by a soft discoball of constellation light. Various sampled phrases pursue a number of the tracks. Nadine Hemme’s vocals on “Sweet Awakening” touch on both Luomo’s “Livingston” 12” (FT12) and Mathias Schaffhaüser’s “Desire” 12” featuring Donna Regina (FT10). “Under My Skin” takes, yes, that phrase, “I’ve got you under my skin” (it is hard to tell if this is Alex himself or Ol’ Blue Eyes). There’s a sense here of reworking classic standards, of remaking techno’s own contributions to much larger musical traditions. Renya’s “Ko-Hi-Nomitai” adds this element of canto-pop to the mix (apparently Japanese?). As a few reviewers have commented, Taylor has come to the fore, along with aforementioned Luomo and MRI, in the Digital Disco manifesto of late-era ForceTracks. Some have called it “crisp tech-house,” others “clean house.” Track 6, “Blow,” probably opens this up a little past subtlety. Crooning and swooping, this is music for feeling very, very high. Vital’s lyrics on “Your Soul” bury distorted tuba (perhaps not literally) along with her own voice, which plays trading places with the favored foreground rhythm. And unlike other contemporary techno producers such as the Perlon camp, the beat remains front and centre to Taylor’s production: the kick is especially and often emphasized, which makes these records a pleasure to DJ, and remind me why I like dance music in the first place—the bass. And to this, “Flop Recorded Live” is the party treat, an upbeat dub rhythm that has some comical references to a Maurizio “M” series record pitched to +8. That early morning, light haze of clean production and whispered melody comes to substantialize the track, which is then set to infinite motion and ultimate force with the slightly vocoded phrase “I raise my hand to the top—and flop.” “Flop,” with its incantation of effeminity (try out the gesture, kids), spins out ForceTracks’ manifesto through the counterplay of rhythm and fragment, flow and affect. Becoming-woman indeed.

By tobias c. van Veen

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