Album Digest, July 2012

Just a short album digest this month. I bought a stack of CDs and am parcelling them out over the next few months (together with important additional releases as they crop up). This is in the hope that I can write more considered pieces about each one. This month I’ve grouped together albums with monochrome covers and a BT album from June that I found out about recently. These albums are not just linked by their artwork, they also form a cohesive whole. As a result I dispense with reviewing each album in depth. As usual there is a playlist at the end.

These are the four albums of Album Digest July 2012:

  1. BT “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I”
  2. Actress “R.I.P”
  3. Monolake “Ghosts”
  4. Mohn “Mohn”

Into The Grey

What unites these albums is a moody, glitchy strain of electronica. You will note from the hero image the rather monochrome nature of each album’s artwork. The music on the albums is pretty monochrome too, not that I mean this as criticism. Just that for the most part they are intense pieces with hidden depths.

Let’s start with the BT album. “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I” is one half of a larger whole in two ways. First, BT released another album on the same day. The companion album “Morceau Subrosa” is a 46 minute piece consisting of a single track. This sounds a bit too experimental for me. If I can get it cheap or, better still, find it on Spotify, I will give it a go. “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I” is also similar to earlier BT album “This Binary Universe”. Both are over 75 minutes long and consist of seven tracks that are, on average, 13 minutes long. On release “This Binary Universe” was something of an anomaly, an album of expansive ambient tracks featuring both a classical sensibility and more abstract use of the hissing, stuttering ‘transforms’ that give BT’s mainstream releases their power.

“This Binary Universe” is a successful experiment and is well-liked among BT fans (myself included). The notion of a ‘sequel’ or at least another album with a similar structure is appealing to me. The problem, as with many sequels and follow-ups, is that familiarity with the earlier material colours your perception of the new tracks. What I say here may be subject to that. “This Binary Universe” is a great album to have a nap to and in this respect “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I” is an even greater success. While there are satisfying sections that throb and pound as much as the best of his material, the majority of the album is sedate. “Seven-Hundred-Thirty-Nine” and the middle section of final track “The Gathering Darkness” are the more upbeat moments.

The rest is a satisfying swirl of electronica with quiet generative drones glitching away through tracks like “13 Angels On My Broken Windowsill”. There is a nice bit of transform heavy trad-BT in the middle of the same track and a few wub-wub-wubs for brostep fans (cf Skrillex). There is a pleasant generative feel to the clicks and pads of “Go(D)T”. It’s dark and reminiscent of Biosphere, a hearty recommendation round here. Parts of the album lack conviction, from about forty minutes in there are bits that twinkle and busy themselves with sounding like soundtrack music rather than being interesting in their own right. “The Gathering Darkness” is a satisfying closing track but I was disappointed by the ending. For the last two minutes it seemed like the album might be a closed loop and fade nicely into the first track. Unfortunately, putting the album on repeat all reveals that this is not the case. Another idea of lists for things to do on my own albums.

The Actress album is smoother though the title track shuffles into your speakers with a satifying glitchiness too. I admit that I was a bit non-plussed by his previous album “Splazsh”. At one point I mentioned that I might put it in an album digest last year but I never ended up doing so. As much as I did an injustice to the SBTRKT album last year by constantly comparing its tracks to those of 808 State, I may do the same with this album. Tracks like “Ascending” and “Caves Of Paradise” sound very similar to Four Tet to me, while the more jazzy slow-paced tracks like “Uriel’s Black Harp” and “Jardin” remind me of tracks by Fridge from a decade ago. These comparisons are not unfavourable, at least not for me, it just confuses me when I read reviews elsewhere that claim it is something entirely novel.

I may not agree that “R.I.P.” is completely novel and mind-blowing, but it is good. The throb of “Marble Plexus” is massive and has a very satisfying heft to it, both through speakers and headphones. I also like the squirming “N.E.W”, which shifts and drifts through its five and a half minute run time.

Monolake is an alter ego of German electronica whizz Robert Henke. “Ghosts” is the second in a planned trilogy of albums. I haven’t heard part one but part two is pretty brutal. The title track roars out of the speakers, all clattering snares, wobbling bass, and a vocal sample that sounds like one of Kraftwerk’s robots on the worst acid trip ever. It’s all tetch, twitch and tech. Henke is one of those people who are incredibly anal about the sound quality of particular formats (his comments about vinyl are particularly cute) and while I don’t have the ears to compare formats, you can tell that every detail has been meticulously prepared.

Second track “Toku”, which is even scarier, is an airy elemental track that is all footsteps and bumps in the night. It builds on strange rattles and eerie heartbeats. When I listen to it while walking home it lends every element of the environment a sinister portent - the glowering skies, the wind in the trees, the looming tower blocks of the police college - all of them combine with this music to freak me out.

Like “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I”, “Ghosts” is an album to be taken as a whole. By about halfway, individual tracks seem more like facets of the same overall sound-world and after “Toku” only “The Existence Of Time” and closing track “Foreign Object” really stand out for me. The former is a hyperactive time trial of a track. I am going to overuse my Kraftwerk references and ask you to imagine how an album that was the nightmarish evil twin of Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France Soundtracks” might sound. Meanwhile, on Henke’s website there is a funny story about “Foreign Object” came into existence. Apparently he produced the track on the same evening as the final master of the album was created. I think I can hear that in it, it is looser and more fun (weird monk noises!) than what goes before.

The final album “Mohn” is also German, a collaboration between Wolfgang Voigt and Jörg Burger, two stars of the continental electronic music scene. I’ve heard of the former but not the later. Fun fact: Mohn means Poppy in German. Initially “Mohn” is not that much different from “Ghosts”, first track “Einrauschen” is a clamour of static and drone. It is not dissimilar to anything on the Monolake album or the first few minutes of “13 Angels On My Broken Windowsill”.

However, the album warms up as it progresses, which was a pleasant surprise. The second track “Schwarzer Schwan” is friendlier than the first, with simulated choirs and warm tones before a rather slow beat stomps in, backed up by a chunky synth. These elements layer over one another as the track progresses, all weird and otherworldly, but nowhere near as oppressive as the Monolake tracks. By contrast “Ambientôt” is positively chummy, a charming synth lilting over light drums and gently rocking back and forth for five minutes. Some hypnotic guitar riffs are layered on before the track eventually fades away.

After the first three tracks “Mohn” strikes for the middle ground. “Saturn” is a hypnotic and upbeat track that ambles along in a jolly and soothing way for eight minutes. With the glitch of “Einrauschen” long gone, the remaining half hour is unthreatening and equally pleasant as “Saturn”. It sounds like a mid-period Orb album but without the annoying samples. A special mention goes to the lovely “Ebertplatz 2020”. I have included it on the accompanying playlist simply because it is lovely. “Mohn” is easy to listen to and like “If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I” very easy to have a nap to. This is probably why I have listened to it so much this month.

Next month: Laurel Halo, Grimes, Auntie Flo, and Passion Pit.

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· Music, Album Digest, July, BT, Actress, Monolake, Mohn, Twelve

⇠ Album Digest, June 2012

Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World ⇢