Friday, August 31, 2012


Four Tet - Pink
Text, 2012

I figured I might as well join in the outpouring of love for Four Tet's new album, Pink (for examples, see the reviews here, here, and here, and the comments here). I don't know if I can call myself a long-time fan of Four Tet, but I've been pretty solidly on board since I first heard 2008's Ringer EP. "Ribbons" caught me in its spell--mysterious and alluring and weirdly beautiful; retrofuturistic in a strange way, like dusty chrome furniture in a space station. From there, I went backwards and caught up on what I'd missed. By the time 2010's There Is Love In You rolled around, it was fair to say that I was a fan. Over the past year and a half or so, it's been a pleasant surprise to have a steady trickle of music from Kieran Hebden, from collaborations with Burial to one-offs and pairs of tracks of new Four Tet songs. Those Four Tet songs are collected here, and it's a credit to the strength of Hebden's voice as a producer that Pink is a fairly unified set, exploring an area that, if not rigidly defined, at least has some pretty solid borders. If Pink doesn't quite match the heights of There Is Love In You, it's not for a lack of stunning moments, as throughout Hebden continues to demonstrate his ability to take what might seem affected in others' hands and turn out effortless, weightless music. The more overt turn for the dancefloor signaled by Ringer and followed through on his last album is front and centre, but there's also a nod towards his earlier work, with the sinuous, ever-shifting rhythms and cosmic outlook of free jazz, the gently psychedelic strains of 1960s folk and early 1970s singer-songwriter music, and the loose-limbed bop-and-knock of hip-hop shot through the floor-filling potential of the material here. Six albums into his career as Four Tet, Hebden's managed with Pink to sum up where he's been and hint at where else he might go. That both parts of that equation are thrilling suggests what a special talent Hebden is.

Pink is a lengthy album--it clocks in at just over an hour--but its length is put to good use: aside from a mid-album stretch of shorter tracks, extended run times provide Hebden with the room both to continually mutate the shape of tracks and to spotlight a track's parts. Thus, opener "Locked" allows its swinging percussion almost two full minutes to do all the lifting before it turns into infinitely refracted psychedelia, all shards of hallucinatory melody that subtly disorient even as they enchant. Similarly, closer "Pinnacles" pushes and pulls on its underwater, Caribou-esque techno centre, letting jauntily dissonant piano crash through the mix again and again, not to disrupt the groove but to highlight how swinging it is. Hebden is still able to pull back and isolate elements on the shorter tracks, though, as the drop into near-silence during the weirdly percolating break of "Jupiters" bridges its pretty overture with the jazzy and relentless groove that dominates its second half. Indeed, if there's a common denominator to the album, it's the importance of the drums to these tracks. Thrillingly alive--even when they clearly aren't live--they make the best argument for the evolution of Four Tet over the past decade, turning what's been an eclectic discography into a surprisingly linear trajectory. It's as if the collaborations with Steve Reid, the folktronica, the detours through house and techno had all been planned by Hebden, rather than happy accidents along the way as he developed. Regardless, it's all there in the drums, which, aside from the beatless epic "Peace For Earth" (probably the closest thing here to the material on There Is Love In You), cover the album like a web in much the same way those shimmering, Reich-ian pings and chimes covered the last album.

If the drums make the album, though, the stunning moments that I mentioned earlier come courtesy of the textures that interact with those drums. The chunky synths that close out "Locked" like a sunset. The kalimba/mbira that wends its way through the final three minutes of "Lion" and pushes the track's funkiness through the roof. The repetitive, old-school vocal sample that drives "128 Harps," and the heart-stopping pauses throughout the track, that inject some tension into what could otherwise be a bit of pretty filler. The chasing-its-tail vocal in "Pyramid" that allows the track to do "Love Cry" in reverse and offer the hardest, purest dance track of Hebden's career. These and other moments provide sumptuous highlights that move the body and fire the senses, suggesting that the music on Pink might best be called "gourmet techno." I've damned other albums for suffering from the dulling effects of great taste, but this is an example of undeniably great taste used to help the music rather than render it tame and predictable.

Despite the superlatives littering this and other reviews, it seems like it would be relatively easy to underrate Pink. Hebden's been so good for so long at this point that a new Four Tet album that does everything he's always done well and expands (or at least deepens) the project's aesthetic doesn't feel like a revelation. I doubt this album is going to be the starting point of any kind of revolution, and it's unlikely that Pink will be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential tones as his pal Burial's Untrue, say. What that doesn't and can't cover, though, is that this is well-written, well-produced music that hits all its targets in a relaxed, assured manner. Sometimes it pays to have a steady hand at the wheel, and it's difficult to imagine a steadier hand than Hebden's here.

On a deeper level there is one thing that Pink has going for it that suggests if it's not an "important" album, it's at least an interesting one: the tracks that make up Pink offer a model of how omnivorous music can avoid the over-caffeinated maximalism that tends to plague "post-everything" music, like Rustie's Glass Swords. At this point, Four Tet denotes an aesthetic sensibility that really does seem comfortable grabbing from just about anywhere, even if it mostly remains within certain genres and idioms. The pastoralism that first brought Four Tet notice is still present--if in limited supply on Pink; one of its wonders is how urban it feels--and the various elements at work in his sound are so integrated, so naturalised, that it's difficult to call anything he does a dalliance anymore. In this sense, Pink feels very timely: you could spend hours following its sounds and strands through YouTube, though that wouldn't necessarily make your experience of the album any richer. Knowledge of UK garage, 2-step, dubstep, house, and techno aren't required for entry--beauty and meaning are communicated on the surface as well as in the depths. In his study of literary modernism The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner compares the densely allusive poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot before concluding:
[N]o knowledge about Coriolanus will lock Eliot's lines neatly together as the information that Paquin was a Paris dressmaker will lock Pound's. Pound omits, omits, but knows what he is omitting and can restore on demand; but behind Eliot's resonance there is frequently nothing to restore (how centrifugal are the Notes to The Waste Land!). (133)
In place of omitting, we might say that Hebden synthesizes or integrates, but, like Pound, he can restore what he's integrated, allowing worlds to continually bloom behind his music. Here an allusion, a citation, and the (seemingly) infinite archive of the internet that supports and supplements the experience of listening to Four Tet offers a connection to a broader cultural matrix without ever feeling like it threatens to overwhelm the music in the present moment. That might not seem like it's much, but I'm finding that an increasingly scarce experience when listening to music these days. If musicians can learn any trick from Four Tet's Pink, I hope it's to do the same.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Nathan Fake - Steam Days
Border Community, 2012

As "The People's List" is unveiled over the next three days, there are a number of albums I'll be looking to see where they place because they seem to function as barometers or signifiers of certain strains of indie-dom. Of those albums, Kid A is the one that I'm most interested to find out about, and not just because it's one of my favourite albums--along with Kid A, there's a whole constellation of albums and artists that defined a certain aesthetic, a certain sensibility, a certain sound that was, for awhile, the sound of the present and the future. Warp Records and 1990s IDM played a big role in shaping that sound. When it came out, discussions of Kid A seemed almost inevitably to be discussions of influence, as if the only important thing was determining from where Radiohead drew those sounds. Once the genealogy was straight, these discussions suggested, everything else would slot itself into place. That the process of tracing this genealogy in reviews and promos for the album let in a whole new spectrum of sounds and ideas about music than were normally covered by reviewers dedicated to slackers with guitars and math-rock bands was a happy accident. So, Kid A--via the fact that it led people who didn't normally (read: ever) talk about these things to mention electronic music, to list Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, and others, and to open a whole new world to listeners of a certain age and background--is and was momentous.

As recently as 2009, Pitchfork officially held Kid A to be the best album of the 2000s. This list makes for interesting reading still, as it at once confirms a pretty conservative bent (all of the albums one would expect to make that list are accounted for, most in exactly the places one would expect) and offers a glimpse at some bands whose stock doesn't seem to be riding quite as high today (Sigur Ros, the Strokes, and Modest Mouse all in the top ten seems like a stretch for "The People's List," but I could be wrong). I believe there's a good chance that "The People's List" will be the final enshrinement of a certain canon of indie music, an entrenchment of an orthodoxy that just might be one of the last stabs at importance as a criterion for evaluation. What I'm not sure of is to what degree the orthodoxy that sprung up around Kid A (and there were certainly people into the things influencing Radiohead long before Kid A was released, but I do think that a band of Radiohead's size and of its position in the indie rock landscape so publicly displaying these musicians' influence on them had a crystallizing effect) will remain the orthodoxy. Back in 2005, Nitsuh Abebe wrote of a world in which "indie kids no longer bulk up their mix-tape credibility with some Autechre or Squarepusher on side two, and the new daydream alternative to rock attitude comes mostly from German electronics." That last clause now seems almost painfully of its time--I can't remember how long it's been since German electronics seemed the choice of indie kids, and given the post-everything maximalism and omnivorous listening habits of today's milieu, it might not even be possible to name any one thing that could be that choice today.

Nathan Fake's Steam Days is a pretty fascinating album to listen to in light of all this, as it seems to speak to a time when there was a specific choice for indie kids, a time that has largely passed. I first became interested in Fake's music when Jess Harvell described his work as "plastic techno My Bloody Valentine homages" in a review of the deluxe reissue of Seefeel's Quique. I've checked out a few of his releases since then, though nothing has really caught my ear in the way that that description caught my imagination. I'd be lying if I said that Steam Days was really much different: for all that Fact might describe the album as his "most dynamic album-length work to date," much of it feels same-y and undistinguished as the songs mostly do the same thing over and over again. What hurts most is the fact that Fake's music seems to be mining territory that others have already covered to such dazzling ends. Opener "Paean," for example, feels straight off the Richard D. James Album, its melody and structure somewhere between "Cornish Acid" and "Cornmouth." Unfortunately, while it's accomplished enough, the melody lacks staying power and the combination of playfulness and slight surreality that lifts James' best work. Regrettably, this same problem crops up over and over again; Fake is a gifted producer--nothing here sounds out of place--but nothing feels particularly necessary, either. By the time "Neketona" arrives, it's hard not to start wondering how many times you've already heard this track.

The limited palette on display in the first half doesn't help matters. The vinegar-y backing to "Iceni Strings" feels like it might be intriguing at first, but it's not abrasive enough to really set off the track's melody (nor is it really that different from what's appeared on the first two tracks). The titular strings are nicely soaring, though I wish they had more to do besides repeat a pretty but otherwise nondescript part. Similarly, the hollow, brittle drums that underpin most of the album's songs feel stuck in some turn-of-the-millennium hinterland in which they're doomed to perpetual good taste: nothing really rages, and even syncopations are relaxed and obvious. It's disturbingly close to coffee shop soundtrack territory, in this regard. What urgency is present on the album is often the result of straight 4/4 hi-hats or snares that become tiresome long before they have the chance to become transcendent, as on "Harnser." 

In contrast, "Old Light" is one of the best things here, as a beat with a slyly funk hitch in its step is accompanied by a distant melody that strikes the right balance between melancholy and mawkish and in so doing manages to be evocative without being sentimental. There's a deftness in its construction that just underlines how much more I wish some of these songs did. The second half of the album seems to pick up on these qualities and is altogether more promising. "World of Spectrum" is intriguingly aggressive, not a million miles removed from the sounds and textures on display on Squarepusher's Ufabulum. Especially against the too-polite backdrop of the majority of the album, its slightly harsher approach is a welcome intrusion and a chance to get the blood pumping. "Rue" is another highlight: its droning chords are genuinely affecting as it pulls off a similar trick to CFCF's "Exercise 4 (Spirit)" or the backing to Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack." The primary-colour melody of "Sad Vember" isn't quite as striking as that of "Old Light," though it is quite nice, but its final minute of hissy, tuneless, pitch-damaged synths feels indulgent and unearned.

The album closes with its two longest tracks: "Glow Hole" and "Warble Epics." The former clocks in at just a shade under eight minutes and moves from ring modulated textures to more mid- to late-90s Warp nods before returning to those ring modulated sounds in its bridge. The melody creeps back in and the drums get a little heavier, but as a whole, the track isn't really dynamic enough to make use of its slightly lengthier run time--its valleys don't feel like valleys and its peaks are too choreographed and inevitable to be genuinely exciting. "Warble Epics" opens with some nicely mock-portentous synths in a much appreciated moment of levity before rigidly 4/4 hi-hats take over. The drums are very upfront and dominate the mix a little, which is a shame because they're not as interesting as some of Fake's other bits of programming. The melody has some intriguing twists to it, and when it finally comes more to the fore a little under halfway through the track it's a welcome development. There's nothing radically different or unique about "Warble Epics"--it sums up what Steam Days is about fairly well, and is one of the more solid tracks on the album. The coda to the track might be the best part, though, a bit of nicely suggestive music that hovers in the distance like heat over a hump in the road.    

I can imagine being impressed by this album if I'd discovered it at 14 when I was reading all about Kid A and its influences. What I can't imagine, though, is being captivated by it in a way that the classics of those Warp Superstars of old captivated me when I heard them for the first time. It's not that Fake is doing anything wrong--largely, he's doing everything right. The problem is that he's doing the right things because they're the obvious, established things to do. The album desperately needs a challenge, an angle to work that would elevate these tracks from filler to attention grabbers. As it is, too much of the album goes by without making an impression or offering a way to differentiate one track from another. What's most disappointing about the album, ultimately, is that its building blocks have already been cannibalised and assimilated by other other genres to fresher, more interesting ends. It feels timeless in the wrong sense: Steam Days doesn't transcend its moment and stand as an immortal work, but rather feels equally unmoored from the present and the past that inspires it, without a place to exist and in which one could interact with it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


I'm really looking forward to seeing the results of Pitchfork's "The People's List" when they start appearing on Wednesday. It'll be interesting to see what the balance is between "we know these are the important albums/great albums" (not the same thing, obviously, though often grouped together and even more often used as the guiding criteria for these kinds of lists) and genuine surprises, revelations, re-evaluations, etc. There's been a certain canon of indie that's crept up around Pitchfork over the fifteen years it's been around, and though that canon and the breadth of genres that contribute to it have expanded (in both good and bad ways), this seems like a moment of confirmation for that canon. In one sense, this list might actually rekindle a certain sense of "importance" that people feel is a diminishing aspect of music criticism and music writing. 

I won't start guessing at trends or trying to figure what those important albums might be, but one pleasant sign I've noticed from the lists I've seen so far is widespread love for the Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I and one surprise has been the love for Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped as the albums representative of Sonic Youth's second wind in the '00s. I went back and forth on whether to go with Sonic Nurse or Murray Street on my list, but "Karen Revisited/Karenology" carried the day. I was definitely not expecting to see Rather Ripped on as many lists as I have, nor was I expecting the total absence of The Eternal. One Sonic Youth related turn of events that I'd half-hoped would come to pass because of its potential for humour was a massive show of support for NYC Ghosts & Flowers that would see the recipient of one of the more damning reviews in Pitchfork's history suddenly held up as one of its readers' favourites. A missed opportunity, universe, but oh well (that was probably a little too far-fetched to hope for on my end, because aside from "Free City Rhymes" and the title track, nothing on that album is particularly great).

One album that compiling my list has made me go back and revisit--and which I'd been meaning to re-listen to anyway because bits of it have kept popping into my head recently--is the For Carnation's self-titled album from 2000. A pretty underrated and underacknowledged bit of American post-rock, it really is a gem, working the ground between folk, jazz, and rock largely by playing on the ideas about space and silence found in each genre. The songs often swing (not surprising given the help from Tortoise alumni), but gently, and for an album that relies as heavily on repetition as it does, it leans on the nagging rather than insistent side. It's also seriously quiet, to the point of almost non-existence at times--this is an album of dramatic pauses and calm-before-the-storm hushes that end up revealing themselves to be the storm. Most reviews talk quite rightly about the strong sense of dread and air of tension that permeates the release--and given the connections to Slint, that makes sense--but there's much more in common here with "For Dinner. . ." than "Good Morning, Captain." The album's not gothic in the way that Spiderland is, though it's very much a nighttime album--that the closer is called "Moonbeams" makes perfect sense, as do the intimate vocals. Most of this different sense of tension and dread comes from that focus on space and silence; where Spiderland is full of guitars, the For Carnation relies on the drums to carry the lead (quite literally on "Being Held") and various electronics to provide what colour there is. 

"Being Held"

For all that the album follows its own path, it's remarkably listenable: never slow despite the patience involved in the construction of the songs, and quite easy to fall under the spell of--there's mystery and suspense, which makes the whole thing seductive. In many ways, it's like Bark Psychosis' Hex in that you never really notice how strange or experimental the album as a whole might be because entering into its logic is so natural. On its own, "Being Held" is bizarre: a weird bell/siren, some dissonant keyboard washes, and a drum solo; taken in the context of the album, though, it feels every bit as natural and as songlike as "A Tribute To" and "Snoother," though both are more obviously "songs" in the traditional (which in this case, I guess, is taken to mean rockist) view. Indeed, "Snoother" is one of the highlights of the album, at once the most overtly jazzy and poppy song, a delicate waltz with some fantastic backing vocals by Rachel Haden shadowing Brian McMahon; when the pair sing "We are no less removed / than for that which she is known," my heart melts. The emptiness of its verses coupled with the sparseness of its instrumental section makes for one of the few moments during which the tension relaxes over the course of the album, but the droning organ (?) in the background throughout carries the dreaminess of the song into appropriately haunting and haunted territory.


"Snoother" is followed by "Tales (Live From the Crypt)," the album's other highlight. Where "Snoother" was sparse, "Tales" is full, the busiest mix on the album, a weird amalgam of a pounding, almost post-punk intensity with science fiction synths (at times sounding right out of the Dr. Who theme) and a vocal performance that manages in its deadpan manner to go beyond Spiderland's darkest moments. Kim Deal's ghostly introduction to the song is a nice scene setter, especially with the way that the bassline seems to launch the song into the abyss after her final word. Everything that was bubbling under the surface of the album's first half comes to light here, though the dynamics feel very different from the standard rock explosion of tension. After this, "Moonbeams" is an aftermath, a ruin, and though the music threatens to become redemptive at times, the album trails off into sullen silence, anxiety looming large over everything.

"Tales (Live From the Crypt)"

I'm not expecting the For Carnation to place highly on "The People's List." I would actually be surprised if it placed at all, though I hope it does. I found out about Slint when I was starting high school, and, for whatever reason, the first thing I checked out after Spiderland and Tweez was the then newly released self-titled album by the For Carnation. Where my passion for Spiderland has faded a little over time (and my Spiderland t-shirt was stolen by an ex-girlfriend), I've remained consistently enchanted by the For Carnation. I doubt I could make a case for its importance or greatness if measured by influence--I've never heard anything else that sounds like it, nor have I heard or seen a band mention the For Carnation in an interview. What I can say is that the album means a great deal to me and that certain parts--the harmonies in "Snoother," the strings in "Emp. Man's Blues," the opening of "Tales (Live From the Crypt)"--are burned into my brain, coming forth from time to time to serenade me. If nothing else, it remains an intriguing, quiet road that few bands seem interested in traveling down. I'm waiting, but I doubt that anything will ever top it at what it does.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Here is my list for Pitchfork's "The People's List." Having to put my choices in order was incredibly difficult (I'm still not sure I got it right, though I feel pretty comfortable with #1); I would've preferred to just list them alphabetically by artist. Also, to avoid having ridiculous numbers of entries by the same artist(s), I limited my selections to one album per band/artist.
  1. Bark Psychosis - ://Codename: Dustsucker (2004)
  2. Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
  3. Portishead - Third (2008)
  4. The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency & I (1999)
  5. Stereolab - Sound-Dust (2001)
  6. Tim Hecker - Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006)
  7. Built to Spill - Perfect From Now On (1997)
  8. The Weeknd - Thursday (2011)
  9. Four Tet - There Is Love in You (2010)
  10. The For Carnation - The For Carnation (2000)
  11. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)
  12. Mogwai - Young Team (1997)
  13. Burial - Street Halo EP (2011)
  14. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (2010)
  15. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (2009)
  16. Boards of Canada - In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country EP (2000)
  17. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead - Source Tags and Codes (2001)
  18. SBTRKT - SBTRKT (2011)
  19. Deerhunter - Fluorescent Grey EP (2007)
  20. Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms (2009)
  21. Bjork - Homogenic (1997)
  22. Aphex Twin - The Richard D. James Album (1996)
  23. Fennesz - Black Sea (2008)
  24. Sonic Youth - Murray Street (2001)
  25. Lokai - Transition (2009)
I wanted to keep it to twenty five choices because that seemed like a good number. Any more and I feel it starts to become a little harder to justify that each album really meant something to me on a personal level. I tried really hard to avoid putting any albums on my list just because they're supposed to be "important." My rationale for selection was basically "what are twenty five albums released between 1996-2011 that I really love listening to?"

Actually, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't that hard to stop at twenty five. It would've been more difficult to keep going--I doubt I could get to fifty with the one album per artist rule and all of the other rules I tried to set for myself. Based on my scribblings on a sheet of paper, though, the next fifteen would look something like this:
  • POLARBEAR - Why Something Instead of Nothing? (1999)
  • Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)
  • Darkstar - North (2010)
  • Tricky - Pre-Millennium Tension (1996)
  • Blue Daisy - The Sunday Gift (2011)
  • Real Estate - Days (2011)
  • Girls - Album (2009)
  • The Besnard Lakes - Are the Roaring Night (2010)
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - B.R.M.C. (2000)
  • Chavez - Ride the Fader (1996)
  • Bardo Pond - On the Ellipse (2001)
  • Gonjasufi - A Sufi and a Killer (2010)
  • Broadcast - The Noise Made By People (2000)
  • The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)
  • Menomena - Under an Hour (2006)
One thing I find interesting about all of this is that you can see the pattern of my listening, in some ways. Most entries are either ten+ years old or from the past five. That space in between was spent largely listening to older stuff--digging into back catalogues or doing my homework on various genres. Obviously some artists on the list continued to release stuff throughout the decade that I listened to, but in a broad sense it's really only in the past four or five years that I've started to focus on the here and now again. Also, it's interesting the way that the slightly different criteria I used shifted the ordering from end of year lists I've made in the past (like with Four Tet and Flying Lotus, or SBTRKT and Blue Daisy).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


One more addendum to the idea of post-digital abstraction I was thinking about last night: this excellent interview with Ship Canal over at Zone Styx Travelcard. The description of Ship Canal's music is exactly what I had in mind:
the sound of youtube's algorithm getting rewritten, or overwritten, or getting into a fight with, the neural pathways of the human brain: strange splashes of found tonal colour, edges left frayed, collaged and accelerated into a blur, until the colours run and meld into a kind of deep, stewed (mushroom) tea brown.
These kinds of musical signifiers--and I guess since I've been using it, I'm stuck calling them post-digital abstraction--are related to, but distinct from, the kind of maximalist music that someone like Rustie or Justice trades in, I think. Whereas digital maximalism is "flat/bright/busy" and "has no interest in 'atmosphere'--it's about dazzle so fierce it chases away all the shadows . . . preposterously euphoric but genuinely awesome: not so much striking a balance between sublime and ridiculous as merging them until they're indistinguishable," post-digital abstraction works similar territory, exploring the atmosphere that both produces flat/bright/busy and that allows it to flourish as an aesthetic, but doesn't have to do so as a way to a kind of sugar and caffeine rush of sound. The same signifiers might be deployed in digital maximalism, but they are not, in and of themselves, inherently maximalist in the vein that Rustie and others are.

In his article on digital maximalism, Simon Reynolds traces the term's slightly different provenance outside of music, in William Powers' take on modern life's emphasis on maximum connectivity as a lifestyle that "max[es] out your nervous system, leaving you in a brittle state of hectic numbness, overwhelmed by options, increasingly incapable of focused concentration or fully-immersed enjoyment." Digital maximalism takes those moments of partially-immersed enjoyment and microsecond-length, fragmented bursts of concentration as building blocks, as tools rather than problems--if I can't focus on just one thing, why not focus on everything all at once?--and uses them to craft hymns to a digitally maximalized body and mind via a sound that is delirious and fevered, not worried about cohering because its chaotic and scattered nature is its essence. Post-digital abstraction, I think, is the sound of those microseconds of concentration before they get processed into the roil and jumble of digital maximalism--it remembers historicity, even if it no longer finds it feasible to operate within that framework. There's a scene in Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man in which the titular character, while suffering from one of the violent blackouts for which he's undergone surgery, opens his mouth and makes a noise like static. A computer programmer, he's obsessed with the idea that computers are taking over society. Post-digital abstraction seems to me to be related to the noise coming out of his mouth.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


A few idle thoughts that spilled over from my review of Evian Christ's "Duga-Three" as I listened to that track again this morning. This is just me thinking out loud, but I'd be interested in seeing if anyone thinks this stuff has traction.

1) Part of what seems quaint/dated about it are its "abstract qualities"--the delayed and overlapping voices sourced from television and radio broadcasts, while a perfectly standard tool in this kind of music, feel like a sound from another era. Radio and television are obviously still a thing in today's world, but it doesn't seem like the kind of polyphonic/chaotic stream of voices and languages pouring into our consciousness primarily comes from television (and not at all from radio). From the graininess of the voices to the very conceit, the piece feels profoundly pre-digital in a way. The echoes of Boards of Canada's aesthetic in the first section are another example--that sound was meant to recall a specific material reality of the pre-digital world, the warping of tape and video by time.

2) The ascent of Glitch in the early parts of last decade (via compilations like the Clicks and Cuts series on Milles Plateaux) seems like a moment of transition into some new conception of abstraction in a digital age, one that has perhaps blossomed fully in the last few years via things like Oneohtrix Point Never's music and the New Aesthetic (and that had already started to come into existence several years before the millennium via time-stretching in jungle and drum'n'bass). 

3) Another sign of this transition might be Brian Eno's albums for Warp, Small Craft on a Milk Sea and Drums Between the Bells, which work in much the same way as his work in a certain kind of pre-digital abstraction (Discreet Music, the albums with Fripp, Bowie, and Cluster, the Ambient Series, Apollo, the Windows 95 theme, etc., etc.), but do so in a showy and frustratingly obvious digital way--each glitch feels designed to call attention to itself as a glitch, as if just to show that Eno has in fact listened to electronic music produced in the past two decades (needless to say, I'm not a huge fan of either of those albums). This also plagued his most recent album with Fripp, though not quite to the same extent (and at times actually wasn't a plague, but made for some quite lovely music).

4) Perhaps another example: the difference between the lines drawn in this list by Mark Richardson and this list by David Bevan about the manipulation of the human voice in music. That Burial and Four Tet are the common denominators seems possibly interesting (a sign of the apparently diminishing-in-value quality of "importance" in their respective musics?).

5) As a related thought on abstract qualities/pre- and (post-)digital abstractions/etc., Ghost Outfit wrote recently, in a piece on Richard Taruskin's The Danger of Music and the necessity of music having an explicit connection to human issues in order to avoid "formalist sterility:"
I still think [Tim] Hecker's music is great but its beauty exists entirely for and of itself. It isn't concerned with the human and, despite all its shimmering construction, suffers from an emotional blankness--a tabula rasa whose sound is gorgeous and unearthly but doesn't relate with the world outside it.
To an extent, I understand where such a reading of Hecker's music is coming from--its emotional content is often ambiguous at best and his catalogue's studied abstraction coupled with this seemingly emotionally distant/reserved nature has led some to call his music academic (read: formalist and sterile)--but I disagree. While I doubt anyone is finding his or her tales of personal tragedy/redemption echoed in Hecker's music the way that he/she might in the music of Xiu Xiu, Momus, or Wild Beasts (to pick the artists Ghost Outfit contrasts with Hecker), I think Hecker's own comments about his music suggest an equally real connection that his music has to the human, to the world outside of itself. His repeated invocations of secular church music is perhaps the big clue to how he conceives of this interaction, but I think his music also connects in its digital/(post-)digital abstract nature. Hecker's music in some ways reflects and in some ways reshapes a digital consciousness--this is attention as snow and static, lost and damaged transmission, corrupted files, bad data (it makes sense he would be obsessed with what he calls "digital garbage"). It's the beauty of those aspects, the way that their drone and thrum form not just a background of our lives, but a significant aesthetic component of them that can be equal parts beautiful and terrifying. 

6) Like the Jameson essay I referenced in my review of Evian Christ points out, though, the present, this (post-)digital realm, is unavailable to us. We cannot experience it directly. What makes "Duga-Three" so affecting, then, is not just the emotional pull of its elegiac tone, but the way that its reminder of another kind of consciousness, another form of abstraction (and I think the formal elements are key here), also allows the present to be set off in relief and experienced. Similarly, in his rendering of those elements that make up the backdrop of the digital world/consciousness into reflections on the very process that turns them into works of often profound power, Hecker's music also makes the present available to us. I understand the moment in which I am situated--and the way sounds function in the spaces of that moment--better because of Hecker's music. I find it "vital, confounding, and powerful" (to use Ghost Outfit's criteria) in equal measure to almost anything I can think of with lyrics.

7) All of the above points in 5) and 6) about why I find Hecker's music and "Duga-Three" so powerful seem related to the shifting sense and experience of time enforced by late capitalism, as outlined by Mark Fisher here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


"Do you think things are going to get better before they get worse?" 
"No way. Things are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. . ."

"What do you think this country's going to look like in 2003?" 
"You know, I'll tell you the truth. Nothing against you guys, but I don't want to answer that question because I haven't even got a mind that's that inhumane." 
"Are you ready for what's coming?" 
"Ready as I'll ever be."

I've only purchased one piece of vinyl in my life, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP, which remains--even thirteen years on (and ten years on since I picked it up)--a stunning release. It was an exciting thing to have, despite the inconvenience of not having my own record player and pretty much only getting to listen to it when I could convince my dad to put it on his record player (given that he favours mostly rock and roll from the 1950s and 1960s, this was never an easy proposition).* What made it a doubly exciting thing to have, though, was not just the sense of danger and strangeness--there was plenty of that, to be sure, given that its back artwork features a diagram of how to make a molotov cocktail, and its cover (see above) is a series of Hebrew letters from the Book of Jeremiah that seem ancient, terrible, and unknowable--but also the catalogue that came with it of recent and upcoming releases on Constellation Records, things like Fly Pan Am, Exhaust, A Silver Mt. Zion (before they became A Silver Mt. Zion etc. etc.), Hangedup, Re:, 1-Speed Bike that came with descriptions that made them sound like the music of dreams and the music of nightmares in equal proportion.** 

Those capsule descriptions were alluring because they both matched what I was hearing on Slow Riot--the simultaneously bleak and chiming music behind "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III" seemed to be, without having heard any of these other artists, what the writer meant by "electro-acoustic"--and hinted at worlds beyond that were darker, denser, more challenging, more violent. I remained (and to an extent remain) fascinated by the feel of this stuff as much as by the sound, the weird accruals of emotion that show up in the collision of drones, field recordings, noise, strings, and electronics that Constellation, Kranky, Alien8, and a bunch of other labels peddled in the mid-to-late 1990s and into the early 2000s. 

While it's easy to see now how the space for such music is limited and how it could easily become over-saturated with bands, projects, and solo musicians all working off the same template, that didn't always seem the case. Nevertheless, the whole "Montreal scene" around Godspeed felt exhausting to consider long before Red Sparrowes started releasing stuff that seemed like a parody of Set Fire to Flames (who might have benefited from being parodied, to be honest) or Valley of the Giants put out a concept album about Westworld (though that album is frequently quite beautiful). I've remained fascinated by this style of music--one of the innumerable branches of post-rock--partly because it never quite felt exhausted so much as stagnant, full of good ideas that no one quite knew how to marshal into the next step forward. Those interstitial moments on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven--like the infamous "Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-Market" recording (one of the great joys of my life while I was living in Oregon was to finally go to an Arco AM/PM, though I never got to hear any PA broadcasts while I was there, unfortunately)--were so good at carrying emotion and conceptual meaning, at making the connections between the politics of the band and the album's liner notes, the grainy films behind the band's performances, and the music, but nothing ever really got beyond them (and by Yanqui UXO the band had abandoned them). 

This strand of post-rock was already (perhaps always already), in a certain sense, a pretty hauntological genre, but I've often thought that it would be thrilling to hear a band or musician revisit those generic elements and to take that next step with them. In his essay "Progress versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?,"*** Fredric Jameson discusses the function of science fiction as a genre via its narrative structures and their complex temporal work. Under late capitalism, Jameson claims that the problem facing "historical fictions" is not only that the genre is dated, but also:
It is the relationship to the past which is at issue, and the feeling that any other moment of the past [than that depicted in the particular work] would have done just as well. The sense that this determinate moment of history is, of organic necessity, precursor to the present has vanished into the pluralism of the Imaginary Museum, the wealth and endless variety of culturally or temporally distinct forms, all of which are now rigorously equivalent. . . . In its (post-) contemporary form, this replacement of the historical by the nostalgic, this volatilization of what was once a national past, in the moment of emergence of the nation-states and of nationalism itself is of course at one with the disappearance of historicity from consumer society today, with its rapid media exhaustion of yesterday's events and of the day-before-yesterday's star players (who was Hitler anyway? who was Kennedy? who, finally, was Nixon?).
In contrast to historical fictions, then, Jameson argues that SF works according to a different temporal relationship that restores historicity to a certain extent. As a genre it does not, he suggests, relate to the future(s) it depicts in the sense of acclimating its readers (and society at large) to potential "future shocks" as its:
visions are themselves now historical and dated--streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals--while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight. That particular Utopian future has in other words turned out to have been merely the future of one moment of what is now our own past.
Given the distance between these dated visions of the future (often now set in our present) and our own lives, and given the impossibility of living to see the realisation of the distant futures predicted, Jameson locates the function of SF not in "images of the future," but in an experience of the present. These narratives "defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and . . . do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization." This is a valuable function, and works to restore an experience of historicity to daily life, because:
the present--in this society, and in the physical and psychic dissociation of the human subjects who inhabit it--is inaccessible directly, is numb, habituated, empty of affect. Elaborate strategies of indirection are therefore necessary if we are somehow to break through our monadic insulation and to "experience," for some first and real time, this "present," which is after all all we have.
For me, post-rock served a similar function (and given the steady diet of SF I consumed growing up, maybe the two were cross-pollinating), its "shock of the new" shocking precisely because it seemed so richly and intensely of the present moment. I do not think it is (or that it is not only), then, a retromaniacal impulse that leads me to dream and wish for a resurgence of this music that seems like it could so precisely and effectively locate me and society in our present.

As a politicized aesthetic statement, the possibilities seem vast, especially the way it might enable a reimagining of the elements of daily life under late capitalism, a transformation of the sonic detritus that surrounds us, into critique, into vision, into a different world. In terms of lost or misplaced futures, the one in which post-rock didn't exhaust itself and its listeners by hardening into a set of rigid dynamics and instrumental tics is the one I feel the absence of most personally. I wasn't old enough, nor was I born in the right country, to experience rave and jungle, to enjoy that shock of the new with its cultural and political vibrancy. For me, post-rock was my avant-garde, "I've never heard anything like this" moment growing up. I'd caught it past its peak, to an extent, and within a few years of discovering it, it was gone (or at least its key players were either on hiatus or lacking in vitality), but post-rock, even in its much derided genre name, seemed to point to something, to a future that was beyond the limits of the present (and at the same time, to highlight and outline just what the limits of that present were). It may not have been as apocalyptic as the vision quoted above, but there was a sense of something coming, some fundamental change driven by monumental forces. Pre-millennial tension and post-millennial anxiety and good, old-fashioned conspiracy theories and complaints about the government combining in various forms of despair, discontent, outrage, and, underneath it all, hope. That future, the one post-rock offered, never came, obviously, and I'm left with old Constellation catalogues and under-listened to pieces of vinyl (now I have mp3s of Slow Riot I can listen to whenever I please) and my memories of what I thought could be.


In the past month and a half, the release that I've listened to most frequently is probably Evian Christ's mix for Dummy, "Duga-Three."**** While he's coming from a different place than those post-rock musicians I loved growing up, in sound and execution, to say nothing of inspiration, "Duga-Three" feels like it should have come out on Constellation or Kranky in about 1999. The drones, the field recordings, the disembodied voices from television and radio broadcasts, it's all there. Joshua Leary (who produces music under his nom de plume [nom d'ordinateur?], Evian Christ) mentions early Tim Hecker as an influence--and that influence is pretty obvious here, especially in the way the melody works in the first section--but the extreme pitch-damaged tones, and the air of half-remembered dreams also calls to mind Boards of Canada, Ghost Box Records, and all the hauntological all-stars of the past decade.***** Given those sounds, it's fitting that Leary offers the following inspiration for the release:
Duga-three is a four-part piece of music I wrote after reading about a Soviet signal transmitter of the same name. It was characterised by the repetitive tapping sound it broadcast, which was sufficiently powerful enough to intercept transitions [sic--I think he means "transmissions"] across the world. After 28 years of transmission, the Duga-3 array was abandoned as mysteriously and unexpectedly as it had appeared. 
I have weird little pockets of mainly useless knowledge about random things and for a little while I was reading about over-the-horizon radar systems, which were used by governments in the mid-late 20th century to detect targets at really long ranges. Because the Duga-3 array was unclaimed during its period of use there was a lot of speculation about what it was actually there to do, and together with the sheer scale of the construction...I dunno I can imagine it really intimidating and I guess I just found that interesting. Visually it is just incredible, there are some amazing photographs of it on the internet. Just kind of gets your imagination going a bit.
Based on the above, you'd be forgiven for assuming this is just another exercise in ostalgie, nothing but Cold War daydreams and Soviet kitsch. It's really quite a remarkable listen, though, and if it doesn't quite do what I hoped some post-rock band would do in 2003, it doesn't feel a million miles away from that. Over the nineteen and a half minutes of "Duga-Three" you are transported: it creates an atmosphere, a coldness and a ghostliness, a haunt(ing), and takes over the space in which you listen to it. I find it endlessly entrancing and fascinating, especially the tapping (it almost sounds like a motor softly turning over) that runs throughout the second half, the most overt nod to Duga-3. 

I also find "Duga-Three" curiously dated and quaint--not just as a result of its inspiration and subject matter--but in the way that it really does feel out of time, like a lost release from another era. This isn't exactly the kind of thing you hear so much of these days--for whatever reason--though ten or fifteen years ago I imagine people would be all about it, as it taps into the same kind of emotional space and resonance as something like William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops or The Conet Project. I was happy to read Leary's answer to the question of how he sees this release fitting into his more rap/bass music oriented work; for Leary the only distinction is the lack of drums. Maybe there's a spark of what caught my eye and fired my imagination (long before it ever caught my ear) about post-rock rumbling in the increasingly polyglot world of bass music, ready to re-emerge and transform itself. If not, though, there's still "Duga-Three," a perfectly elegiac reminder of one of the lost futures of my youth and all its promises.

*I will always be thankful for my parents letting me put things like Loveless and Spiderland and Ege Bamyasi and all sorts of stuff that I was finding out about from the internet on during car rides (mostly) without complaint.
**Thinking about my own relationship with my copy of Slow Riot, I understand the cult of vinyl that exists (and I certainly loved the physical object of the CD--artwork and liner notes at once a great fixation and a source of disappointment by never revealing enough and, at the same time, never deepening the mystery enough). Perhaps if I had more time, money, and space, I would become a collector of vinyl (there's a pretty big second-hand record shop down the street from where I live), have a high-fi, and throw record listening parties.
***A shockingly prescient essay, given that it appeared in 1982.
****That Evian Christ releases music on Tri-Angle makes a lot of sense--while I don't love everything the label puts out, I definitely find their catalogue and aesthetic intriguing, just as I did with Constellation et al. when I was younger.
*****One artist he doesn't mention as an influence but whose work I've found pairs quite well with "Duga-Three" is Fever Ray, whose album remains one of my favourite releases of the past five years.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Recently, in addition to the brief return to life of K-Punk (!!), I've enjoyed two posts by Mark Richardson on his relationship to the work of David Lynch. The first is on Lynch on Lynch, the inspiration for Eraserhead, and the dread of responsibility, while the second is on The Elephant Man and its intersection with Richardson's family and life. I'm not a huge Lynch fan--I've seen Blue Velvet and I think it's a good movie, and what I've seen of Twin Peaks has been pretty great--so the draw is mostly the writing itself in the pieces. Both of them aren't exactly new ground for him--in fact, they're variations on a theme that he's pretty much made his own at this point through his "Resonant Frequency" column at Pitchfork--but they are perfect illustrations of what I love about his writing. I guess it's actually just a feature common to all good writing, in a way, the ability to start from a small moment and, through a gradual accumulation of details, to arrive not at a big revelation or a capital-t Truth, but an understanding of the way those various small moments and experiences come to bear the weight of our everyday lives. For whatever reason--there are probably several--I find that what he writes often feels right to me. And, in a way that I'm not sure I could articulate very well, his writing feels very contemporary to me beyond the level of strict content, which very often is of-the-minute music. It engages with those bits of culture in a way that I recognise as a common way of engaging with culture at this moment, I guess.

In a "Resonant Frequency" column that feels like a companion piece to the one I've cited a bunch on here about music-making-as-reblogging, Richardson outlines his goal or process with writing, and the conundrum which proved its impetus: 
I've always felt a bit off in my own world, which sometimes is a point of pride and other times feels like a kind of social failure. These days, for me, the greatest tension when writing about music is trying to bridge the gap between music as a private or a public experience. So part of me envied those who could join the conversation about Nicki Minaj and connect her music to the broader culture, because so much of the music I love and have interesting ideas about means almost nothing to the world as a whole. . . . And in the larger scheme of things, Alog [a band Richardson has had difficulty connecting with other people about] don't matter. At all. Unlike Nicki Minaj, if their music didn't exist, the world would be virtually no different. So when writing about Alog, I have no choice but to write about how this music might work for a single person (me), and how these abstract sounds might enrich a single life (mine). That's where the meaning is found.
While those final sentences might suggest a certain of solipsism, and while the opening could be misread as a kind of too-hip pretension, it's in establishing the connection between 1) the single listener/viewer/experiencer, 2) the moment in which he/she encounters the music/video/experience under discussion, and 3) the response to that music/video/experience as pre-conditioned by 1 and 2 that Richardson's writing (mostly) escapes those traps.

In the first piece on Lynch I linked to, for example, the moment in question, what you might call the point, is his experience of being in Yellowstone with his wife and:
laying in the tent. I felt like I could hear so much going on outside. Things rustling, sticks breaking. It was pitch black out and you couldn't see a thing. And I had a strong sensation of fear and dread. And I think it was partly because I was afraid of the responsibility that came with being in a relationship. If something happened and we were confronted by something dangerous, I was going to be the one to deal with it, primarily.
Of course, Richardson doesn't leave it at this point. There's been a perfectly good set-up for this moment already given--a series of killings in the park, an encounter with another hiker giving off strange vibes--but Richardson goes back to why at that moment he might be feeling fear and dread, why this responsibility suddenly and in that moment feels like such a terrible burden. And it's in that tracing back that he works in how Lynch on Lynch and Eraserhead fit into this psychic moment, how those works come to both explain and bear some of these emotions. I think it's an elegant move, as it doesn't impute an overly simplistic causal relationship between object and viewer/listener. That is, it doesn't limit the object to simply an explanation of the viewer/listener's experience of the object, but it does illuminate how certain aspects of the viewer/listener's experience activate (for lack of a better verb) parts of/meanings in the object. At the same time, the object retains a separate existence and can effect the viewer/listener because it is distinct from him/her. It's a tough balancing act. Going too far either way usually means bad writing.

The second piece, the one about The Elephant Man, does a good job of illustrating the separateness of the object from the viewer/listener. All of the significant details in the story are about Richardson, about the personal context of elephantiasis and John Merrick for him. Lynch's film is a spectre, a force that crystallizes all of those moments in Richardson without ever really being there. In fact, the closing paragraph which addresses the film most directly--though it is quite interesting and nicely pensive and wistful without being grasping--isn't even necessary for the piece to work. The way that bits of culture become ambient objects that structure and reflect our inner worlds has already been illustrated by the image of a ten-year-old boy listening to radio because he's too scared to turn on the TV, the device that brought something he'd already been afraid of to a fever pitch.