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Kangding Ray - OR

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Artist: Kangding Ray

Album: OR

Label: Raster-Noton

Review date: Aug. 19, 2011

There’s an admirable purity to the German label Raster-Noton’s releases. Its gallery-strength experimental electronica is always intellectually stimulating, whether it’s SND jabbing microharmonies over techno beats or Alva Noto flaying bits off a Word document. Their digital aesthetic is uniform but rarely feels stale — at this point, its familiarity just underlines that R-N is its own genre.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in the house style, judging by the latest by Kangding Ray (a.k.a. David Letellier). To listen to OR next to 2006 debut Stabil is to be taken aback by how far he’s come. Early Kangding Ray is still great: glitchy, occasionally sublime stuff (see “Mai”), less focused on high concepts than the musical qualities of abstract sound, arranged with architectural precision. Accessibility isn’t a Raster-Noton hallmark, but Kangding Ray balances hints of melody with innovative machine rhythms. But where Stabil‘s lulling and detailed computer music could sometimes be taken for a European version of Loscil or a more graspable Vladislav Delay, OR is an entirely distinct experience — his most accessible, and darkest, album.

Letellier started down a noisier path on his second full-length (2008’s Automne Fold), and OR takes that album’s elegance and adds to it blunt violence and a cinematic, narrative thrust. The title track features contributions from Ben Frost, and his stylized aggression is an audible influence throughout. Powerful swells of feedback straight out of By the Throat appear on a few tracks, but there’s also the subtle inclusion of acoustic sounds like the snaking, super-low brass in “Coracoid Process.” It all makes the tracks feel huge. Ray’s expanded vision moves the music off the hard drive and into a post-industrial zone. Its uneasy atmosphere captures the mood of the last few years of economic collapse with perfect clarity. “You never thought I could be so destructive,” goes one whisper in “Pruitt Igoe,” named after St. Louis’s spectacular failure of a housing project, and indeed, collapse is a big theme here. That the title means “gold” in French isn’t the only indication that bigger ideas are at work.

The productions are lush, and capture the appeal of techno without accepting many of its conventions. There isn’t much snare to speak of, so Kangding Ray creates a sense of forward motion from an array of kick drums and crunchy clicks. The off-kilter rhythms of “En Amaryllis Jour” hark back to glitch and dubstep, but also achieve the hypnosis of the Villalobos school of techno. Unlike the implacable rhythms of an album like Alvo Noto’s Unitxt, Ray’s grooves sound natural — found, not forced. It’s not hard to imagine dancing to “Pruitt Igoe,” which appears on the album in a noticeably different form than the version found on last year’s EP of the same name.

Without discounting his other releases, OR sounds like a leap into artistic maturity for Letellier, a totally focused and distinct statement. It’s compulsively listenable, but its accessibility comes on its own terms.

By Brandon Bussolini

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