While most people think of electronic music as dance music, there has always been a segment of electronic artists, going back to Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s, who saw electronica music more as an art form than simply updated disco music. In the ’90s, artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre used the tools of electronic music: synths, samplers and computers to make music that was more complex and cerebral than just another dance track. While it does not have the same commercial appeal as house or trance, there are still artists like Metamatics, Datach’i and Oval, who explore the more avant-garde side of electronica on their new albums.
The cover of the new Metamatics album Spook Tinsel Shoal (Hydrogen Dukebox) shows what appears to be a twisted yellow ribbon floating in a green space. This is an apt description of the music on this album. The music Metamatics creates resembles sound sculptures that seem to drift and float in a space outside of the speakers. This is ambient music in its purest sense, looking back to such classic electronica albums as Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children or Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works Vol. 2. At its best, ambient music can be hypnotic and soothing, creating a audio landscape for the listener to get lost in. At its worst, it can float in one ear and out the other.
What keeps the music on Spook Tinsel Shoal on the good side of the spectrum is that Metamatics uses drums and beats as an anchor for the songs, to give the melodies a foundation. This gives the listener something to latch onto and keep their interest. On Toy Toy, the beats provide a chugging, slightly distorted and staticy rhythm for the slowly evolving melody to wrap around. For Brother has an acid-lounge feel to it. The steady, jazzy beat keeps the foot tapping while the slow pulsating bass sounds and snatches of organ provide a warm sound akin to laying in a bubble bath. Many of the songs on this album have a sedative-like feel to them, but this doesn’t mean the album boring. Metamatics may walk a fine line on this album, but the music is perfect to put on and space out to, to get drawn into the hypnotic sounds this talented group creates.
While Metamatics’ sound may be more minimal and hypnotic, Datach’i creates crazy cut-up sound collages on his album, We Are Always Well Thank You (Caipirinha). While it may not appeal to everyone’s tastes, the music at least deserves to be noticed. Datach’i sounds as if he’s trying out every possible effect, sound and setting on his equipment, throwing them all into the mix, stirring it up and seeing what comes out.
The opener Free In A Box is a good representation of the music on this album. If you don’t like this song, the rest of the album probably won’t grab you either. Sharp blasts of synth sounds come out of the speaker like sonar pings while a barrage of distorted electronic beats fly out relentlessly. Most of the songs on this album fit this pattern, intricate and pretty melodies and effects with massive walls of beats and noise slammed on top of them. It’s hardcore-meets-ambient.
When this combination works, like in Free In A Box, it’s interesting and exciting. Falp (318) +16 degrees tones down the assault of beats a notch, instead throwing them in as bits and pieces while behind them an airy and metallic melody, the sound of someone exploring a dark and dank cave, plays on. The business man has a steady, insistent beat while over it what sounds like a toy electronic piano cheerfully plays on. The song is topped by the sound of what could be a radio being tuned in. The whole effect is whimsical and playful. Clownman starts off with a playful tone, computer bleeps and blerps show machines can have a sense of humor too. Then, with warbling, low playing analog synths kicking in, a more menacing, dark tone takes over the song. Anyone who was ever afraid of clowns will understand the dichotomy.
Datach’i should lay off the beats and distortion at some moments on the album. When used to the right effect, these sounds capture the listener’s attention. Too much of them though, and they just get annoying. Some songs end up resembling halfway tuned-in radio programs: layers of static burying a barely audible song. It might have worked better if Datach’i had let more of his melodies come out in the mix. But there’s no arguing that the music on We Are Always Well Thank You is some of the most interesting and unique to come out in electronica for quite some time.
Oval is almost more known for the way he makes his music than the music itself. He came up with the idea to use the sounds made when scratched and damaged CDs play, working these glitches into his compositions. On his new album Ovalprocess (Thrill Jockey), he uses a computer program he designed to replicate the same effect. This is music on the far end of the avant-garde. There’s nothing really resembling songs here, no beats or melodies, not even titles. Instead these pieces sound like bits of sound and noise arranged together – much like the early days of electronic music.
While Oval may be renowned in the world of electronica for his past efforts, this album sounds more like a way to demonstrate his new program and technique rather than to make music. The overall sound of the album is cold and metallic, heightened by the sounds of the glitches and skips made by scratched CDs. There are some pretty pieces of music scattered throughout the album, but most people will get turned off by the skipping sound and end up checking their stereos for problems.
Sometimes, the glitches heighten the songs, providing a sense of rhythm or a neat effect, but Oval should have put more feeling and warmth into the tracks. While this might appeal to some (those who think electronica artists like Squarepusher and Autechre are too commercial) for most, it will be a novelty at best, unlistenable at worst.