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Janek Schaefer - Pulled Under

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Artist: Janek Schaefer

Album: Pulled Under

Label: AudiOh!

Review date: Jul. 22, 2002

Now that I’m a (metro) card carrying Brooklynite, there exists but two kinds of music in my daily life: subway and non-subway music. The former is that kind of thing (and it differs from person to person) that works you into the rhythm you need on a daily basis to ignore the fact that you’re fucking broke and have a diploma that is essentially worthless in “the real world,” to ignore the screeching wheels and piercing air horns of the R train, and, finally, to ignore the equally dour look on every other wage slave’s face as they make their way to their cubicles. The latter for me is everything aside from HipHop, Cheap Trick, and Funkadelic (a base oversimplification, I suppose, but you get the point), all those things which encourage listening and not just rhythmic interface, that allow your mind to work around metaphors, symbols, and relationships as you sit in your room staring at the walls lost in a train of thought marveling at the sheer oddity of the sounds you’re hearing.

The work of British musician/sound artist Janek Schaefer is non-subway music in the purest sense of my recently created term. This is music that doesn’t make it easy on the listener at all. The tones, moods, and contexts of the music exist in no small part, but these are all things you have to work hard to grasp and see as the relations between found sounds, sparse instrumentation, and a smattering of locked grooves and other vinyl manipulations unfold carefully and cautiously. Inspired by his travels about the world, and in particular of danger signs that warn of straying too close to rivers in Yosemite National Park, Pulled Under, Schaefer’s second solo disc is a work that deals heavily in the notions conjured up by the falling figure pictured on the cover: the idea of being lost in undulating waves of sound/thought/matter, spinning in and out of comprehension and control with little to hold on to from side to side. The disc also works as a companion/homage of sorts to J.G. Ballard’s dystopian visions as espoused by the novel The Drowned World, a piece of prose that depicts a future earth in which the ice caps have melted and left nearly everything submerged. Schaefer expertly uses his granular abstractions and experimental electronics to create a series of eight soundscapes that work their way through feelings of dread and anxiety, and also the sheer dangerous joy of losing complete control.

Leaf through the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll find Janek in the pages, noted as the creator of the world’s “Most Versatile Record Player”. The sound of the Triphonic turntable, a three-armed beast of a machine that would undoubtedly wreak havoc all over a collection of hip hop vinyl sides, is not as prominent this time around, distancing Schaefer from comparisons to the work of turntable experimentalists like Philip Jeck and Thomas Brinkman. In its place are manipulated mini-disc field recordings and other sound oddities that lead the listener through a series of “granular abstract environments”. The record begins with the slowly building hums and drones of “SuperChannel”. The material here has been abstracted beyond the point of recognition, but the track still works towards a carefully undulating and peaking wall of sound. “Rapid Xativa” introduces some gentle guitar to the lush soundscape that creates the aural texture of standing on a beach watching the waves. This is all before the tide sucks you under the surf, allowing you to surface every now and again for brief snippets of unrecognizable noise from the rest of the surface world. “Prenumbral Rover” is even more intriguing, with this one taking source material from an Andy Gracie installation that used solar eclipse radio signals – and up close and personal soundtrack to solar flares, if you will. The drones ride in and out on ominous and unsettling waves before giving way to a richer tapestry of shifting sounds and textures. The guitars return for “Maison a Bordeaux,” this time sounding more disembodied than ever as they warble back and forth in the mix, before being somewhat muted in favor of a more unsettling soundscape.

“Parallel Spoor” is the obvious centerpiece here. The track’s fourteen-plus minutes are languorously (the good meaning) stretched out, beginning with static-sounding vinyl manipulations that gradually come to encompass both the mutated sounds of streets and trains before segueing into the carefully plotted manipulations of concert recordings laid delicately on top of one other. The two distinct pieces of the track work well with each other to make for textures that carefully shift and move around each other, dropping in and out of cavernous echoes of sound. “Lithospheric Shifts” takes its cues from rolling waves of sound generated solely by the Library of Congress’ 8rpm “Record Player for the Blind”, working itself into undulating hums. The album closes with “Vertrek”, a track that mines similar aesthetic territory, although this time relying on more steady drones and electroacoustic flickers with low-end waves rolling in from the background now and again. This brilliant record closes amidst the steady din of granular textures that gracefully fade away, leaving nothing but a slowly dying hum.

It’s rare that a record this experimental can at the same time exist as an intriguing treatise on the nature of dystopia, as paralleled by the Ballard novel mentioned earlier. Yet Schaefer accomplishes just that, skillfully blending an almost innate knack for crazy sound manipulation and treatment with an expert sense of composition and structure. It’s also rare that a record that strives to be such a daring piece of art can end up being so flat out listenable, too. Provocative when it counts, and yet delicately composed when it counts even more, Pulled Under is an excellent treasure, something that will appeal to fans of ambient, electro-acoustic, or experimental electronics all around. The true joy of this record is that, even after multiple listens, it doesn’t even come close to revealing all of the intricacies contained within the tracks. This is “foreground music”: music to be carefully heard so as not to miss any of the subtle beauties it has to offer the listener. It makes me wish I was more of a morning person, as this would undoubtedly make the commute into Manhattan a lot more interesting.

By Michael Crumsho

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