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September 28, 2001

++ Tigerbeat6, Monika, Rechenzentrum, Force Inc. Plus: Minimal Techno At A Turning Point

++ Tigerbeat6, Kid606's alphanumeric imprint (no rumors yet of any bootleg remixes of "number bands" like Blink 182 and Sum 41, but there oughta be) goes on the prowl this month, flashing some newly sprouted fangs. A whole litter of the label's cubs (and feline cousins) work over Brad Laner's Electric Company project, but it's less a mauling than a mewlful nuzzling. The SoCal gearhound, a player in Medicine back in the day, is known for his noisy, disjointed digital textures. Here, he's remixed by TB6ers like Kid606, Pimmon and Blectum From Blechdom; Force Inc. reps Jasper and Geoff White; Planet noisemakers Leafcutter John and -ziq; and even minimalists Kim Cascone and Frank Bretschneider. No one cuts against the grain, so to speak, given that pixel dust and sonic abrasion are the hallmarks of almost all concerned here. Nonetheless, the comp travels a satisfying stylistic distance, from Kid606's hermetic hip-hop to Leafcutter John's industrial-strength IDM to Bretschneider's tentative Geiger clicks.

The disc follows hot on the heels of August's double-CD compilation, Tigerbeat6 Inc., an almost comically gargantuan collection of tracks from the label's artists and fellow travelers alike. Cex, Blectum From Blechdom, Dat Politics, Lesser and Stars As Eyes all fall in the first camp, but more surprising are some of the one-off contributors: electro-blip miniaturists Gamers In Exile, Hobby Industries' Goodiepal, Icelandic sound artists Stilluppsteypa, and Force Inc. standbys Twerk and Mikael Stävostrand. Truth be told, I prefer a bit more cohesiveness than the comp offers, but as a primer for some of the more irreverently "out" electronica out there, it's not a bad investment.

Yet another new one from the Tigerbeat6 (w)rec(k) room is Blectum From Blechdom's Haus de Snaus, a reissue of two of their sold-out EPs: "Snauses and Mallards," released on Kit Clayton and Sue Costabile's Orthlorng Musork label in March 2000, and "De Haunted Snaus," put out by Tigerbeat6 on Halloween, 2000. The duo were nominated as finalists for Ars Electronica's Golden Nica award this year, a jab at the boys' club that usually holds court in the realm of computer music. Running almost directly counter to the minimalist current of so much contemporary digital music, Kevin Blechdom (née Kristin Erickson) and Blevin Blectum (née Bevin Kelley) create a messy pileup of breaks, samples, squiggles and noise. Instead of using MIDI to harness their rhythms, they manually sync up their beats, resulting in a riotous collage that's always on the verge of dissolving into chaos. (As if to compensate for the musical untethering, they often perform wearing a four-legged, four-armed knitted jumpsuit that binds the two artists together.)

If the Kid has a rep as one of the more hyperactive performers on the digital scene, Baltimore's Cex is even more notorious for his attention-starved antics, often abandoning his laptop in mid-song (it keeps playing — one of the upsides to laptop performance) to dive into the crowd. Oops, I Did It Again!, his second full-length for the label, finds him alternating between jokey bedroom recordings and dramatic, glitch-infested post-techno in the vein of Autechre or Schematic Records. His track titles share the same inside-joke impulse as do many of Kid606's: check "Texas Menstruates" or "Florida [Is Shaped Like A Big Droopy Dick for A Reason]." Once the punch lines wear off, though (if they ever got to you in the first place), Cex's music reveals itself to be awfully derivative, borrowing the same skipping beats and chiming chords that have turned IDM into a parody of itself.

The finest of the new lot, by far, is Pimmon's Electronic Tax Return. The Australian musician shares affinities with Vienna's Pita and Australia's Oren Ambarchi, carving complex structures out of cascading static. Instead of Cex's four-bar patterns and hackneyed atmospherics, Pimmon layers dozens of seemingly arrhythmic loops into a shifting morass betraying only the hint of an underlying structure. And like Pita, he's able to wring the most heartbreakingly beautiful tones out of abrasive noise. What makes Electronic Tax Return all the more interesting is that it's a live recording, though how much of the performance was pre-sequenced and how much improvised remains an open question. The punch line here is revealed at the CD's close: "That was Pimmon," cries an announcer, over the faint applause of the crowd. "And while he was doing that, he lodged his tax return electronically. And the good news is he's getting $86 back!" (No word whether any members of the audience, frowning on such multitasking, may also have asked for refunds themselves.)

++ It should come as no surprise that Los Angeles' Plug Research is providing ground support for the Berlin label Monika here in the US; the German imprint's skewed fusion of pop and electronic music is perfectly in line with Plug Research's own extra-generic explorations. Raumschiff Monika collects buzzing pop miniatures from Barbara Morgenstern, Quarks, Contriva, and Komëit, reaching back as far as the label's fourth release, from 1998 (founded in 1997, the label launched with a 7" from Quarks, and now numbers 20 releases in its catalog). Showing no particular allegiance to dance music, Monika's style is closer to the electro-pop of Soulo, and while first listens draw attention to the lo-fi keyboards and herky-jerky beatboxes, further immersion yields a surprising degree of warmth, a sentimentality masked by humor. Contriva's "Kapitän" sounds at first like a cover of The Byrds' "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," but turns out to make its own arresting little indie-pop masterpiece out of acoustic guitar, electric bass and drum machine. Don't miss Contriva's bonafide cover of Depeche Mode's "The Things You Said," roughly fashioned out of twangy guitar and plunking bass. Beautiful, charming, and just the thing for days in need of a little brightening.

++ One of last year's more intriguing minimal techno releases, Rechenzentrum's self-titled debut album on Kitty-Yo (home to Laub, Peaches and early Tarwater and To Rococo Rot recordings), drew disappointingly little attention. Perhaps it's no surprise that the disc went largely unnoticed; the market is so flooded with grainy, gritty four-to-the-floor that it's hard for even the most rabid fans to keep up. Still, Rechenzentrum's slightly off-kilter chug stood out, thanks to its range of textures and incorporation of processed breaks. The trio's live show is even more distinctive, incorporating live video mixing on a dual-deck VCR alongside more typical knob-twiddling; their performance at MUTEK this year, combining flickering video sampling with minimal techno's bassy kick, was one of the festival's highlights.

Their new album, The John Peel Session, goes far beyond their debut. Gone is the dependence upon 4/4 techno rhythms; instead they explore new kinds of hybridity, from gritty dub overlaid with inky trumpet to ominous, cinematic ambiance interleaving a string quartet with the rushing of a freeway. And yes, for chug junkies like myself, there's enough boompty to keep my inner DJ happy. Finally, a QuickTime movie included on the CD gives viewers an idea of what Rechenzentrum's live show is like, with a Technicolor lattice of flickering lines morphing in sync with the track's dubby bounce.

++ Speaking of flooding the market, curse Force Inc.! They put out so damned many records I can hardly keep up with listening to them all, much less writing about them. The summer months saw relatively few records emerge from the Force Inc. family of labels — Stephan Mathieu's phenomenal frequencyLib, on experimental sublabel Ritornell, and the floaty ambient techno of Jetone's Ultramarin, on Force Inc. proper, are two welcome exceptions to the summer lull. Last week, though, the Frankfurt publishing force — which includes Force Inc. for techno, Force Tracks for house, Mille Plateaux for experimental work and Ritornell for darker, more ambient textures — kicked into high gear. The fall schedule kicked off a few weeks ago with three new releases: Geoff White's Questions and Comments, Alva Noto's Transform, and Stilluppsteypa's Stories Part Five. Together, these three releases indicate something of the strengths and weaknesses not only of Force Inc., but of the entire microsound scene.

Alva Noto's album will come as no surprise to fans of the artist's work as Noto or under his given name, Carsten Nicolai; like his sometime collaborator Ryoji Ikeda, Nicolai creates crystalline soundscapes out of the purest sine waves, knotting threads of static into tight, tactile rhythms. While Nicolai tends to reserve the Alva Noto moniker for his more "musical" work, Transform comes across as much less immediate than last year's Prototypes. After a handful of listens, I can't decide what to make of it; less visceral than Pan Sonic, not as dreamily ephemeral as snd, it occupies a strange middle territory, in some ways emblematic of the state of microsound, as certain textural signatures, once novel, reach a saturation point, and the need for a new attention to structure presents itself.

For Force Inc., of course, saturation has had its upside — the label achieved its reputation partially as a result of being able to define a sound, and then releasing variation after variation upon it. That's the story of most successful electronic music labels, and in fact it's the story of genre itself — especially in electronic music, genre is a series of themes and variations, a dialogue played out in the manipulation of tropes. But saturation has its risks as well, and Force Inc. is veering dangerously close to exhausting the template for — hell, I've just about run out of adjectives for it — dubby, punchy tech-house.

Geoff White's Questions and Comments is a case in point. This new-ish producer makes 4/4-oriented minimal techno in the vein of — well, just about everyone. And while the album is nice — it shares the color of Norken or Crane AK, the texture of MRI, and the off-kilter impulse of Twerk — it's just not terribly different. That in itself shouldn't be damning; as I just said, genre, especially in dance music, is a game of theme and variations. But listeners are getting restless. The weekly new-release lists that arrive in my in-box seem to take longer and longer to download, weighed down as they are with latecomers' additions to a glutted canon.

Someone on the Microsound list this week, responding to a thread about the alleged stagnation of the genre, asked rhetorically, "How much good music do you need?" But the obverse is worth considering — how much average music can you take? Like it or not, electronic music — just like hip-hop or rock or even the classical recording industry — thrives upon innovation (which is not the same as novelty); labels that want to remain at the top of their game need to recognize this fact.

Fortunately, Force Inc. keeps pushing forward with Ritornell. (And let me take a moment to admit that I find the evolutionary metaphor of music to be suspect; I do not believe that art is teleological, or even "progressive." But there is also a limit to the degree of difference that entails innovation, that keeps things interesting, and I have no interest in art that hashes over the same territory again and again. So for the time being, I'll stick with the conceit of progression, but if anyone can suggest a better model, I'm all ears.)

Stilluppsteypa are an Icelandic trio (though they spend most of their time in mainland Europe now), known for their fairly uncategorizable take on sound, noise and texture. That they've worked with the Hafler Trio, Nurse With Wound, Zoviet*France and Stock, Hausen and Walkman should give you some indication of their inclinations. Stories Part Five is a bizarre, hard-to-grasp, and totally engrossing listen, incorporating fuzzed drone, short-wave relay, buried rhythms, and stolen tones. If Alva Noto's latest release speaks to microsound's growing pains, and Geoff White's illustrates techno's reluctance to leave its adolescence behind, Stilluppsteypa's record is a document perfectly suited for the present moment, precisely because it seems so open. There is no recognizable style here (and I have no doubt that this, in time, will become its own style). There is no authorial signature, a fact at odds with the rather hilarious cover, depicting the trio outfitted in satin capes, black garb and boxing shorts, one member bare-chested, vamping in the sunlight above a European city sprawled below. All the codes of rock 'n' roll and "art music" collide, and the resulting chaos is more question than answer. I'll be mulling this one over for a good long while.


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