Thursday, October 27, 2011

Plaid - Scintilli

I've always liked Plaid, and even though my review comes down a bit hard on them, I still enjoy this album.

Once in a while, it’s grand fun to act on impulse and tear open the plastic wrapper (Scintilli’s limited edition comes with a nicely designed pointless object, or “muda na mono”) and have some sweet treat. Like a gummy bear or a Snickers, this album is perfectly constructed to hit those spots in the brain that crave immediate satisfaction. In fact, if one embraces this album for the splendor of sound and ignores the premature dramatic fizz-outs, it’s a dream to listen to (with the exception of the irritating “African Woods”). Yet after all that work, it’s a shame to produce something so devoid of grit or humanity. Handley and Turner may enjoy what they are doing, but the album lacks an emotional element that even the most perfect digital delivery cannot fake.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Oval & Mountains at Western Front

Originally published on October 11th, 2011 for SSG Music

Mountains' gear dominates the humble wooden stage at Western Front in Vancouver.

Every year Vancouver gets a smattering of “Decibel Festival Lite,” where a few musicians who perform at the Seattle festival make their way across the border. At the Western Front on Sunday night nary fifty people came to see a unique pairing of electronic artists in Mountains and Oval, whose disparity in approach to music was plain to see.

Like a pair of lumberjacks fire-gazing in their log cabin for the winter, Mountains (Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg) confirmed they are professional relaxers. The early start time surprised me as I walked into the small acoustic space to hear the stoic duo already engaged in their psychedelic space crafting; they must appreciate a good night’s sleep. Motifs on acoustic guitars were swallowed by sequencers spread across the sonic divide like scintillating fog.

In other moments the guitars provided a warm spinal cord to hold up the burgeoning cosmos emanating from the live electronics, a feature that defines their recent album Air Museum. Taking the acoustic wash of ambience to another level, the sonics explore the warmer climes of classic science fiction videos. Their set featured familiar elements from Air Museum (parts of “January 17″ peppered the final ten minutes), but Holtkamp and Anderegg effortlessly created a unique armada of sounds that were engaging and relaxing. If only my folding chair had been a lazy boy.

The tables of Mountains’ analog gear, cables, effects pedals, and guitars made way for one small table and a stock PC laptop. This measure of equipment doesn’t prepare a listener for the quality and oddity of sounds that Markus Popp is quite excited to share.

Oval drags and drops squiggly erratta, almost-ethnic synthetics, plucked pointilism, and
off-kilter forms that are realized well after they've appeared.

Popp has been performing as Oval for more than 20 years, and much has changed since his earlier works that helped pioneer the idea that “glitch” can be a pleasing musical concept. The spartan room at Western Front made the performances seem more like a tech conference presentation than a concert. A chandelier or other design elements could put a little flavor into the space, but on the other hand, the lack of flair allows for complete focus on the performer.

On Oval’s recent double album O, real instruments were sourced to create sounds and spirited midi drums carry many of the compositions to a new level of depth, a result Popp himself was surprised with. He professed to the audience that he had “a lot of material to get through” and that if anyone didn’t like something, to speak up and let him know, encouraging discussion between songs. A song would end abruptly, and there would be complete silence. At each sudden interval Popp would occasionally mutter to himself and everyone in the audience would try not to breathe. The invitation to interact was exciting, but no one took a chance, leaving Popp to make every manner of facial expression as he ushered a jungle of different motifs into his main musical themes, creating entirely new but familiar compositions.

No song was more recognizable or infectious than “ah!,” a cerebral pop tune that reveals Oval can actually bring the party. Dancing at this small event would have felt a bit out of place, but many of the pieces planted the desire. The challenge in listening to O became an absolute delight in person. The cadence in each song was constantly misbehaving, keeping the mind highly alert. The instruments’ hard, analog strikes were quite physical. The levity and charisma of the off-balance melodies made the music very human, like you could feel it emanating from your bones.

Markus Popp wears his windbreaker to weather the storm of questions provided
by the audience.

Amongst his energetic and tumbling vignettes, Markus Popp is more of a scientist learning to become a musician. During the after-set discussion, he said he didn’t consider his pieces to be true songs and admits that he doesn’t ever listen to his contemporaries. “I’m always in touch with it, but I don’t listen to electronic music.” His laptop had color coordinated audio themes, arranged by instrument or feeling. He can experiment with his library of wild sounds as long as the base tracks (drums and main melody) are synchronized. He said it was akin to hearing the hum of a washing machine while experimenting in the kitchen. “It’s nice to know something is working while the rest is going on.”

Popp’s encouragement to interact and ask questions was the most wonderful part of the show. Even though the audience remained silent, each person knew he was a welcome participant. It played out more like a listening party and conference with wine and vinyl readily available. Popp’s humility and eccentricity made for an engaging evening of music and technology.