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Sybarite - Nonument

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Artist: Sybarite

Album: Nonument

Label: 4AD

Review date: Mar. 2, 2003

Glitch-Pop Artificiality

Sybarite's Xian Hawkins offers eight calm tracks of floating electronica, putting me slightly in mind of Styrofoam and similar bands, with a bit of cribbing from more glitchy members of the electronica family. At times it can approach abstractness, but always with one foot in the realm of accessibility. A pop sensibility filtered through digital manipulation is in evidence throughout.

These songs often feel skeletal, like constructions of delicate steely rhythmic elements burdened with hissing, droning sounds. I can imagine film accompaniment, something indeterminable happening in a dark alley, rain falling, a sense of dread hanging over the scene as some sort of Lovecraftian entity gets up to no good.

The occasional use of vocals sometimes brings these songs into Portishead territory, though with a more fractured approach. "The Fourth Day," for example, includes chanted vocals and an intriguing melodic break; it's perhaps some sort of goth electronica. "Water" is more straightforward vocal glitch-pop, this time with male vocals by Gregory Kenney. Blending the stressed percussion with bass, cello, and violin sounds results in a downtempo song that's in some ways a bit too slick for its own good.

"Homegrown Cultures" begins calmly and ominously, actually reminiscent of some Coil work, but then picks up the pace a bit with some stronger percussion. The increase in energy is relative, though, as nothing on this album really breaks a sweat. "Renzo Piano" is one of the most successful pieces when it comes to creating sonic atmosphere. Its calm rhythms, clanking, whirring and buzzing, remain a bit aloof from the organ-like drones and piano interludes. These mysterious and ghostly sounds make for perfect late-night listening.

"The Accidental Triumph" is another atmospheric piece, nicely blending horns with delicate, crystalline electronic sounds. It's not quite as unique as "Renzo Piano," and just murmurs quietly through its four minutes very calmly. "Fresh Kills" builds from quiet synthetic sounds until the rhythm kicks in, aided by a cautious piano motif and vocals somewhat reminiscent of Stereolab.

It’s an odd problem to have, but the truth is that Nonument is actually too clean. Despite the stressed sounds and glitchy samples used, everything here is covered with a sheen – like it's encased in plastic. It's not so much artificial as overly cleansed. In these days of digital production, there is a risk of extracting all of the feeling from the sounds used, and that's precisely what seems to have been done here. Even the vocals are so mannered, they're emotionless.

I like much of the approach taken here, and the use of sounds is hard to dispute; Xian Hawkins has constructed songs that float and yet feel purposeful, with forward motion towards a palpable goal. Yet I found myself wishing for more dirt, more authentic texture to the sound, instead of having it all feel like it came straight out of a computer. It's odd that I don't feel that way when faced with, say, Autechre, where the artificiality is almost part of the point. But in Sybarite's case, the songs can come across like a robot pretending to be human. It may sound like it, but there's something missing.

By Mason Jones

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