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Alva Noto - Univrs

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Artist: Alva Noto

Album: Univrs

Label: Raster-Noton

Review date: Nov. 14, 2011

The most radical thing about Univrs is how familiar it feels. A decade ago, we would’ve heard its syncopated splashes of bit-crushed distortion as hi-hat patterns. The bass pulses that throb through your frontal lobe would’ve been kick drums. The laser-point percussive clicks would’ve been drum-machine snare hits. In other words, because the music was so ostensibly cold and alien, we would’ve understood the music through other musics, our only point of reference being something we knew. The music thrived on this tension between known and unknown, on being able to reveal something about the encroaching world of data.

But 10 years on, we don’t hear these as abstractions of some genre anymore. The banging electro, surging techno and harsh industrial that flash through these 14 tracks don’t really stick as genre exercises. We hear these sounds just as they are — no more, no less. What is radical about Univrs is that we don’t need to question Nicolai’s digital constructions anymore, we no longer need to interpret them or find a concept. We’ve grown comfortable with them. We like them. These aren’t club rhythms; they’re biorhythms. They’re not experiments. They’re physical facts.

And this comfort, this intimate familiarity, is just the problem. After more than 10 years of Alva Noto, what we saw as one of Nicolai’s most attractive theses — that there are patterns in the data, ones that can enlighten and delight, be sinister and subversive, be elegant, ugly, funky — feels like it’s been proven. We get it now. Nicolai is the victim of his own eloquence.

The music here is seductive, hypnotic at times. Its droning passages are as exhilarating as its rhythmic ones. But as Univrs progresses, this thrill starts to feel decadent, as if Nicolai is looking for more to say but just keeps utilizing the same vocabulary. The tension that his previous work thrived on, the one that drew on the gap between what we knew and what we were hearing, is gone. It re-emerges on “Uni Acronym,” where Anne-James Chaton monotones a long alphabetical list of acronyms that rule our life (from BBC and JVC to PVC and XML) over a noisy, percolating techno-funk backdrop. Concept and execution collide, but only for a moment, and even this list starts to seem obvious. Yes, our life is ruled by the data of others, and more often than not we adjust our lives to its patterns, not vice versa. But we know this. And Alva Noto used to tell us things we didn’t know, used to do more than just confirm our suspicions.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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