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The Hope Blister / Markus Guentner - Underarms/Sideways & Lovely Society

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Artist: The Hope Blister / Markus Guentner

Album: Underarms/Sideways & Lovely Society

Label: 4AD

Review date: Mar. 19, 2006

In the 1980s, England’s 4AD label acted as a high-cultural counter within independent music. Their records, dressed in florid yet largely abstract art by the v23 graphic design collective, housed music that privileged the flood of the semiotic over the concretized meanings of indie rock. The 4AD catalogue was ‘of a piece’: buy one, buy them all. If you didn’t like the music, just frame the sleeve. Nothing said more about the benign homogeneity of 4AD than label idée Ivo Watts-Russell’s This Mortal Coil project, where he created an in-house supergroup whose three albums were divided fairly evenly between liminal balladry and opaque ambience. With those records, Watts-Russell etched the label aesthetic in stone, the arc traced by the songs covered providing a meta-text: Tim Buckley, Big Star, Gene Clark, Syd Barrett…

The Hope Blister was Watts-Russell’s second attempt at the grand gesture. Instead of a revolving line-up, he hinged the project on a few key characters and had them rework songs by Chris Knox, Neil Halstead, Brian Eno and others. The songs came clothed in the same sublime that was characteristic of other 4AD records, but the vocal histrionics on the Smiles OK album pushed it over the edge. Underarms is the wordless flipside, a cloudy, mist-fogged pane of atmospherics. The seven pieces, split between lengthy drone essays and studied string section abstractions, effectively sounded the last gasp for the treasured associations held by the hardcore 4AD fan: after this, the label’s pews filled out with earnest art-rock and stubby-fingered erudite folk-pop.

It’s somehow appropriate that Watts-Russell chose Kompakt artist Markus Guentner to remix Underarms into Sideways, given Kompakt’s similar balance of pop and ambient, uniformity in graphic design and ability to reroute branding nous as artistic/aesthetic reliability. Guentner sometimes feels like the ‘missing boy’ of Kompakt, barely out of his teens but creating music so dilated and evanescent that he is perpetually skirting disappearance. Guentner extracts loops and hissing pulses from Underarms and then submerges the original in freezing water. On Sideways everything smears – when trace elements do appear, like the strings on “Sideways Four,” it’s completely stirring. “Sideways Seven” is gorgeous and stately, like a benign take on the power-station drones of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II.

Guentner’s ambient productions are about the disavowal of definition, dissolving emotional surety into indefinable shadings. On Lovely Society (Ware Records), Guentner returns to house/techno, opening the set with “All the Time,” where Heiko Badje’s vocals carry the weight of the world’s sadness in three syllables. Lovely Society starts draped in sorrow, the first clutch of tracks scoring a similar melancholic pop-house as Lawrence or Crane AK’s “Supermarket.” There’s more incident in later tracks – the Renato Figoli remix of “All the Time” refuses to rest, snapping the original into tiny shards of stain-glass and reassembling it into a mosaic of splintery pop. The thread that connects this more strident work with the undulations of Guentner’s ambience is the focus on finely wrought textural placement, cocooned within the familiar shiver of the artist’s consummate thumbprint.

By Jon Dale

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