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Stephan Mathieu - Radioland

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Artist: Stephan Mathieu

Album: Radioland

Label: Die Schachtel

Review date: Sep. 8, 2008

If you go to Stephan Mathieu’s website (http://www.bitsteam.de/wp), you’ll see lots of photos showing where he’s walked, what he’s eaten, what his kids are up to, and where he’s going to play. You could see similar life details at about a million other blogs; what sets Mathieu’s work apart are his strong sense of composition and good eye for detail. Music isn’t photography, but Mathieu deals with issues every photographer faces on his new album Radioland, his first solo effort in four years. To get a good photograph, you need both luck and skill on your side at the moment of capture. Afterward, you might be able to use salvage methods to bring out an image’s power; if it isn’t there, it isn’t there. No matter what, you’ll spend a lot of time culling your shots to find the good stuff.

Mathieu is a musician who has worked as an improvising percussionist and a digital re-composer, and you’ll find elements of both those approaches in the methodology on Radioland. The album is composed of shortwave radio signals that he snatched and transformed in real-time on various occasions over an eighteen-month period, then post-produced over six more months in 2007. Since the music-making stopped when he flipped off the ‘record’ button, what did he do during those six months? Choose, discard, order and re-order, like a curator or a composer, and then finally arrange seven selections from numerous initial candidates into a cohesive and gloriously multi-hued flow of sound.

Radioland fulfills the cardinal principle of ambient music; you can play it for pleasant background sound, but it richly repays close listening. It is a close kin to Rafael Toral’s Wave Field. Both discs back up breathtaking surface appeal - in other words, you don’t have to be totally warped by noise to find the music really beautiful - with layer upon layer of essential details that change radically depending on how loud you play the thing and yield endless rewards to attention paid. Take “Raphael,” the opening track. In the course of a few seconds, orchestral woodwinds slide over static like a glacier in a hurry. While the horns build and swell, different strains of electronic noise filter in and out of hearing; they’re there and then gone like white-caps in a choppy sea. Musical performances, conversations, and the hiss and crackle endemic to shortwave bandwidths all come into play, but most of the time they’re so processed that it’s the timbre and texture, not the provenance, of Mathieu’s material that stands out. He has a knack for snatching and transforming sounds, like the bobbing high tones on “Eine Promenade” and the shimmering midrange early in “Licht und Finsternis zum Auge,” so that they seem unchanging even though they’re in constant flux.

Radioland is the most beautiful ambient record and the most immersive piece of drone I’ve heard all year, but to leave it at that would still be damning it with faint praise. This is simply one of the loveliest wall-to-wall sounds around.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of Stephan Mathieu

On Tape

The Sad Mac

A Static Place

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View all articles by Bill Meyer

Find out more about Die Schachtel

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