Albums of the Year 2011: #3
BNJMN - Black Square
I have to admit that, ignoring the cliches about books and covers (because this is an album, not a book, damn it!), I first picked up BNJMN's second album of 2011, Black Square, because of its cover. It reminded me of Lorn's very good album Nothing Else,* which is not a bad comparison. Both albums offer a kind of stripped down take on their respective electronic music genres (roughly, house for BNJMN and techno for Lorn) that does nothing to disguise the constituent elements of the tracks or the process of their composition. Indeed, few of BNJMN's tracks can be said to have a narrative or much in the way of development, at least in terms of progression from one point to another. What Black Square excels at is to introduce a theme or groove and then simply add and subtract elements from the song. This sounds simple and a recipe for boredom, but it's not: Black Square succeeds because of the excellent pacing of those additions and subtractions and the way that they subvert what at first seems like the linear trajectory of the track. This is not music that has an intro just to build up anticipation for the beat to drop; quite often, when the beat does drop, the other elements of the track refuse to give way for it, continually disrupting its attempts to impose a kind of strict tempo or pulse on the track. His approach is perhaps most obvious on "Open the Floodgates," the album's most direct nod to house, in which the chopped and shuddering music continues to push to the foreground, overwhelming the most club-ready beat on the album. Halfway though, the whole track enters a hall of mirrors with lasers zipping everywhere and the beat rushes in to save the day, only to be overwhelmed once more. Basic kick drum patterns often run underneath the tracks as anchors, but this is far from the asceticism of mnml: the percussion often swings and syncopates merrily along.
None of this is done in a self-indulgent or show-off-y way, though. What's most impressive about Black Square is the ease and confidence that permeates the music. Aside from the two pretty-sounding but forgettable short tracks ("Enterlude" and "River Way," whose pitched down twinkles are a wonder), these are songs that impress with their purpose. Not a single element feels out of place or enters or exits at the wrong time (a matter of vital importance on an album like Black Square). BNJMN tips his hand early on, as "Primal Pathways" and "Wisdom of Uncertainty" lay out the basic template of everything that's to follow: the former's gorgeous synth strings demonstrate the melodic territory the album is going to cover, and the latter provides an easy to follow primer on BNJMN's compositional methods, adding and subtracting elements before a minimal bleeps-and-percussion outro cools things down. The title track covers some of the same ground as SBTRKT, all sleek, stylish, and sexy night moves with some nice hand percussion layered in the mix that really enhances the groove. The album's final two full songs, discounting "River Way," are the best here, though. "Lava" takes the foundation of "Wisdom of Uncertainty" and explodes its aesthetic possibilities, connecting a long build up of elements added to the track one-by-one to a fantastic melody (the flanged strings that creep around the edges are heavenly, and the Morse code keys to open the track wouldn't sound out of place on a Stereolab album). Slowly, everything is pulled away, leaving just a first pieces of the song; the final thirty seconds of the track might be my favourite part of the album. As good as "Lava" is, though, "Hallowed Road" does it one better. Aided by a truly excellent bassline, "Hallowed Road's" mournful tune feels like the final transmission of a dying space station. There's something vaguely worrying or threatening about the melody and atmosphere, but BNJMN wisely keeps this from developing into full-blown menace. In a list full of albums with great closing tracks, "Hallowed Road" might be my favourite closing track of the year, which is saying something. I wasn't enamoured by BNJMN's first album of 2011, Plastic World, but Black Square really made an impact with me. Its confidence and compositional nous suggest that BNJMN has a bright future, and I eagerly await his next offering.
*Speaking of Nothing Else, I have to say that I think it does the same things that people are lauding Kuedo's Severant for, only it does them more effectively and with a better set of tunes to boot.