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Marcus Schmickler - Altars of Science

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Artist: Marcus Schmickler

Album: Altars of Science

Label: Mego

Review date: Jan. 10, 2008

Marcus Schmickler might not have the most immediate name recognition in the crowded field of contemporary electronics composition and improvisation. Some of his collaborators – like Fennesz and Rafael Toral – are far more widely known than the Cologne musician. But Schmickler has been active as a “pop” artist (with Julee Cruise in Pluramon), as a noise assassin, and as an important large group collaborator (in, e.g., MIMEO). Take his entire discography into consideration and you'll find he’s one of the few artists in this medium who has a feel for pacing, dynamics, structure and color.

Basically, Altars of Science is a multi-part suite (the commercial release also comes with a DVD), with a palpable form that’s compelling and mysterious. It opens with a disorienting cavernous rush, framed by electronic burble. Schmickler doesn’t simply like to play with contrast; he favors interruptions, gaps, almost as if he enjoys problematizing his ideas as soon as he’s laid them down. The record races quickly into a long passage that sounds like squealing bows and excited glass, with jarring dynamic shifts and tension created via near glissandi effects. The ringing and whirring of the first track, combined with its harsh spatial shifts (which create an almost claustrophobic environment) remind me of some of Xenakis’ harsh, early electronic music (hey, Schmickler’s website is called Piethopraxis, after all).

The second piece changes direction, with a continuous stream of sound and disturbing commentary from the margins, like the inside of a barrel scraped with a contact mike. Bulbous bass ostinati seem to be clawing their way into life before the piece gets flayed by digital knives. And by the time we reach the muffled choruses and amplified blades of the fourth piece, I’m more convinced than ever that this is – even unconsciously – some kind of homage to Persepolis (except, of course, for the brief, almost subliminal fragments of Pluramon-style techno). The music whisks you away in its rush and froth: the swirling, polytonal, almost psychedelic head-fuckery of the fifth part; the harsh, tortured balloons of the sixth; and the long, slow cooling down of the closing section.

Richly imagined and realized in detail, Altars of Science is possibly the best thing I’ve heard from Schmickler. And that’s saying something.

By Jason Bivins

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