Mark Fell - "Occultation... Razor Simple Acid Pause Version With LFO To Cutoff" (Manitutshu)
The demonstration record is a relic these days. Makers of new instruments and musical gadgetry no longer make a vinyl long-player to show their wares; instead it’s YouTube videos or streaming audio samples. In one of the only examples in recent memory, Quintron’s Q Electronics released a Drum Buddy demonstration disc in 2001. I’m not sure the CD encouraged any sales of the $999 light-powered drum machine, but it was an enjoyable lark, if not an album that offered much reward on repeated listens. RCA’s The Beautiful Sounds of Quadrasonic has few direct descendants, if any, in contemporary record catalogs — releases like Mark Fell’s Manitutshu might be as close as they come.
Manitutshu isn’t a demonstration album in the traditional sense, but after his presets for Erik Wiegand’s new software synthesizer were turned down by Native Instruments, Fell combined the unused sounds with the systems that created last year’s UL8 to showcase the work he’d done. With track titles on this double 12” (e.g., “Occultation...razor simple acid pause version with lfo to cutoff”), one might expect an album with all the style and flair of a technical manual. Manitutshu, however, isn’t a lifeless parade of presets put on display for synth nerds only; in fact, it’s some of the most fun music that Fell’s made in recent years. The album (technically, it’s a double single, but, at 41 minutes long, let’s call a spade a spade, even if 15 of those minutes are dedicated to a remix) is positively bouncy at times, its rhythms caroming one way and another, its beats consistently inconsistent. The music plays at specific spots, dancing near and around its expected targets like a mischievous child who knows just how far to stray from the prescribed path. Each track plays out the possibilities of a single configuration in a series of erratic dalliances with specific timbres and tempos, their variability unfolding with a mechanical precision. Like a animal tracked as it’s released from captivity into the wild, Manitutshu has the distinct feel of music moving of its own volition, set loose within given parameters and allowed to wander where it may. If largely robotic and inhuman, though, it’s brightly colorful stuff, more immediately appealing and approachable than UL8, Fell’s last release on Editions Mego, and Manitutshu‘s structural progenitor.
For all of its insistence on skewing patterns before they’re fully formed and refusing to settle into a groove for more than a moment, Manitutshu is often propelled by a particularly punchy, kinetic momentum. Atmospheric abstractions are brief and few, as is any sense of stasis. Peculiar geometries are described, full of acute angles and irregular shapes. Mat Steel’s extended “Occultation of...” remix ends the album with something completely different, corralling Fell’s playful hither and yon into a focused stream of insistent repetition. The remix evolves slowly and subtly, ending just about where it began. It’s a satisfying, if asynchronous, conclusion to the album, another surprise on two slabs of vinyl that are already packed full of unpredictability. Other musicians may not get the chance to play with Fell’s presets, but Manitutshu ensures that his work in developing them wasn’t for naught.