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Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Xerrox, Vol. 2

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Artist: Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto

Album: Xerrox, Vol. 2

Label: Raster-Noton

Review date: Apr. 1, 2009

With last year’s Death of a Typographer, Raster-Noton co-founder Olaf Bender (a.k.a. Byetone) pulled off a remarkable feat. The electronic music label has carved out such a distinct sound that it’s hard to imagine any release both adhering to its austere aesthetic and truly forging new ground, but Byetone did exactly that by wedding R-N’s detached repetitive non-funk to the techno and hip-hop hedonism that it always alluded to.

In contrast, last year’s Alva.Noto disc, Unitxt, took the opposite approach. It was the first release from Mr. Nicolai that appeared, well… static. I still think his 2005 Transall cycle is the pinnacle of the Raster sound, with other artists in the vein either sidestepping those releases’ challenges (in short, they don’t fully address the balance between machine process and pure groove) or failing to match their rigor. Since then, he’s immersed himself in collaborations, remixes and ambient recordings, which I (mistakenly) considered part of a distinct M.O. After all those Trans, the process well simply had to be dry, and Unitxt didn’t really sound like anything we hadn’t heard before.

After absorbing Xerrox, Vol. 2, I have to admit that I’ve underestimated Mr. Nicolai. While Byetone rewrote the rules on an intellectual plane, Nicolai quietly plumbed the depths of his person. Those distinct approaches are opposite sides of the same coin. Focusing on the rhythmic elements of Unitxt is to miss half the story: Anne-James Chaton reading the contents of Nicolai’s wallet was the real breakthrough. The trick is to realize the staggering precision of the “coding” of daily experience.

As such, while Xerrox, Vol. 2 operates on a larger scale, it’s as much a dissection as Unitxt, only with a sort of generalized experience standing in for Nicolai the individual. This clicked for me while reading the liner notes. A brief sample: “CD Manufactured in EU, Design: Raster-Noton, Cover Dimensions: 180 mm x 125 mm x 4 mm, Weight: 53.4 g, Material: 380 G/QM Chromosulfat-Cardboard Matt Laminated, Black Ink,” etc. The key is in where Nicolai thanks the sources of the samples: “Thanks for the samples: Stephen O’Malley, Michael Nyman, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Continental Airline Malfunctioning Inflight Program, Metaphysical Function 1 and 2.”

The democracy granted to both contributing friends and whatever the hell “Metaphysical Function 1 and 2” is speaks volumes about how Nicolai views our processing of sensory input – namely, that the leveling influence of the mediator (in daily experience, human sense organs, in Xerrox’s case, data processing) elides those differences.

Does its mournful neo-classical tone indicate that Xerrox, Vol. 2 is a lament for the human elements lost in translation? I don’t think so – the tone is more to underline the seriousness of its purpose. Nicolai isn’t in denial about an increasingly mechanized world, and the best thing we can do is to try to harmonize and understand the similarities. The genius in this album is how clearly the man/machine balance comes across. Capturing this balance is nothing new (in fact, it’s even wrapped up in the name of the electro-acoustic genre), but Nicolai renders machines as something other than exotic emotion simulators. At the same time, he combines the crackle with some utterly gorgeous string work, best heard on the “Monophaser” tracks. While it was difficult to see at first, Nicolai has really moved beyond the intellectual games of Trans. More is at stake than that, and the realization necessarily carries heavy emotional impact.

By Brad LaBonte

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