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Electric Birds - Gradations

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Artist: Electric Birds

Album: Gradations

Label: Mille Plateaux

Review date: May. 14, 2002

Electric Birds (né Mike Martinez) makes blissful, ambient music out of tiny textures, warm pads, and disembodied acoustic guitar notes. Gradations is his first album on the fine German label Mille Plateaux and his fourth overall.

Repetition is the key to this record. Martinez breathes life into three-note melodies and breathy drones through the difficult science of subtle change (or, when appropriate, no change at all). The pattern is fairly consistent in each song-one or two repeated atmospheric chords compete with a broken melody for a while, more short loops enter until the mix gets thick, and eventually bliss ensues. Some of the tracks stop short of the full-tilt wall of sound, which actually works quite well as a counterpoint to those that don’t.

The ingredients seem about equal parts performed and processed. There’s a lot of guitar, sometimes filtered through a delay pedal as well as some nice Basic Channel-esque dub effects. The predominant idea is similar to artists like Hrvatski, Matmos, and Bill Van Loo, for whom fractions of sampled sound culled from eclectic sources are fodder for new kinds of aural beauty. The source material is often unrecognizable, but the tones are clearly delineated into percussive, atmospheric, and melodic types.

In mood, the best comparison might be someone like Oval or Carl Craig. This is pensive and somber music with overt emotional exclamations. Even at its funkiest (and it does get funky in that dubby sort of way-see the title track) it’s not quite for dancing.

Track 9, called “rian,” was absolutely the perfect choice to end this album, and after a few listens I realized it was one of my favorites. “rian” changes subtly, though it is noticeably less restricted to loops than many of the earlier songs. A moody drum track and a single repeated piano chord come in and out, while some noise time-stretched way, way down thrashes freely in the background. It sounds like someone put on a Detroit Escalator Company record while watching machines reposition themselves in a factory after hours. The atonal klanky noises are great against the cool, restrained piano and drums. Gradations on the whole is a thoughtful record from beginning to end.

By Ben Tausig

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