Plus: Vessel, Mark Fell, and Tod Dockstader's Mordant Music Reissue
There's nothing like four days of crappy hotel internet to drive home the fact that the music industry churns out way too much product these days. Talk about glut: After four days offline, it took me five or six hours to download, unzip, and file all the promos that had arrived in the meantime. And that's just the administrative part: I still haven't listened to squat, beyond deciding which bits will never merit a second airing. There's something profoundly joyless about that kind of triaging, but what's a beleaguered critic to do? If part of my job is to be a filter, well, I'm clogged.
As a gesture of protest, then, today's column is dedicated to recent albums that require time and attention — or time and distraction, but certainly time. They're records that set their own terms, and records that make me want to unplug more often.
Ricardo Villalobos, Dependent and Happy (Perlon)
My reservations about Ricardo Villalobos' "Any Ideas" — namely, that it's meandering, a little bloodless, and more of what he's been doing for ages — were not assuaged by initial listens to Dependent and Happy, his first new album in four years. Spanning 10 sides of vinyl and 127 minutes' running time, the LP is in no hurry to get anywhere in particular; despite the omnipresent 4/4 pulse, there's no obvious sense of forward motion. The music just hangs there like a Calder mobile, its elements spinning in slow, unpredictable rotations. Even some of the punchiest tracks, like "Koito" and "Zuipox," succumb to a weirdly enervated tendency, slowly deflating like week-old balloons. But the longer I've spent with the album, the more I've realized that my frustration was a case of mistaken expectations. It's the journey that counts, not the destination, and there are some truly engrossing moments along Villalobos' stoned tour de trance: The glancing vibraphone solo of "Timemorf," the quicksilver tuned toms of "Grumax," the seasick house chords of "Kehaus," the thistly percussion and subliminal whispers of "Put Your Lips." The groove never feels tied to any grid; sounds and rhythms are in constant mutation, lending the album a feel that's much closer to free improv than club music. Rainfall and birdsong and honking car horns press against the skin of the music, reinforcing the sense of being encased in a bubble that floats slowly through the world of its own accord and at its own pace. (Listen to the CD version of the album at NPR.)
Robert Hood, Motor: Nighttime World 3 (Music Man)
You can take the man out of Detroit, but you can't take Detroit out of the man. Robert Hood left his native Motor City for Alabama in the mid 2000s; perhaps it's that distance that gives the third installment in his Nighttime World series its elegiac air. Parts one and two, in 1995 and 2000, found the Underground Resistance affiliate pushing at the boundaries of Detroit techno, trading the minimalist rigor of his early productions for more emotive, jazz-tinged fare that ranged widely in tempo and tone. Volume three, inspired by director Julien Temple's 2010 documentary Requiem for Detroit?, is even more ambitious. He hasn't completely left the dance floor in the rearview mirror; "Hate Transmissions" is a snarling acid beast, "Black Technician" and "Drive (The Age of Automation)" return to the dusky squelch and metallic shimmer of Hood's most floor-centric productions, and the closing "A Time to Rebuild" revisits the futurism of golden-age Detroit techno without succumbing to nostalgia. But more contemplative cuts like "Motor City" acknowledge Detroit's long decline with slow-motion chug and melancholic arpeggios, and "Better Life" hangs in mid-air like Paul Klee's Angelus Novus as interpreted by Walter Benjamin: "The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm."
The question mark in the film's title was no accident; despite the city's long decline, the filmmakers saw signs of a possible reversal of its fortunes in the actions of its citizens — "an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives," as Temple wrote in The Guardian. And a similar question mark hangs over Hood's album, sinuous and cautiously optimistic. From his distant vantage point, Hood detects shoots of green sprouting from the pile of debris.
Mark Fell, Sentielle Objectif Actualité (Editions Mego)
Both solo and in the group SND, Mark Fell's work has long been predicated on a certain rejection of pleasure, pushing minimalism and repetition to the point of provocation. Lately, though, he's applied his clinical approach to pleasure itself. Recording alongside DJ Sprinkles and also under his Sensate Focus alias, Fell has thrown himself into deep house with a gusto that belies his usual stone-faced tendencies, coming off like a Vulcan who has found religion on the dance floor. With Sentielle Objectif Actualité, he takes a step back towards abstraction, circling the DJ booth with a ruler and a pocket calculator in his hands. The dusty chords and sleek machine rhythms reference deep house, dub techno, and garage; there are graceful flourishes that wouldn't sound out of place on a record by Larry Heard (or even Miguel Migs). But Fell's mathematical preoccupations lead him to a parallel dimension ungoverned by four-to-the-floor logic, as short, repeating patterns stutter and cycle out of phase. Try as I might, I can't parse the beat of "SOA-1," for example, with its wrong-footed accents and haywire handclaps. Odd numbers, prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence — whatever the organizing principle, it's inscrutable. Fell's preference for ultra-high frequencies and queasy, fizzing timbres only add to the music's unsettling qualities. Uneasy listening of the highest order.
Vessel, Order of Noise (Tri Angle)
Despite my deep-seated goth tendencies, I've been underwhelmed by much of the Tri Angle label's output; its all-pervasive melancholy has felt a little too one-note. But Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough) is too curious a musician to get stuck in a sad-sack cul-de-sac. Vessel's previous releases for Left Blank and Astro:Dynamics were all over the place (in the best way), flitting between deconstructed Detroit techno, water-logged downbeat, and sumptuous, slow-motion house, and variously suggesting the influence of contemporaries like Actress and James Blake as well as pioneers like Moodymann and J Dilla. There was a distinct signature to all of it, but, to his credit, he never let the particulars of a predetermined style get in the way of the music's natural development. Hesitation sat squarely in the mix; you could hear him thinking his way from sound to sound. Order of Noise is more confident: The sounds are fuller and more fluid, and the essential Vessel-ness of it all feels more pronounced, despite the wild swings in tempo, trope, and even audio fidelity. Next to the lushly chorused digital synths of "Aries," for example, there are tracks like "Temples" that sound like they've been recorded to lo-bias cassette recorders left at the bottom of a damp cistern; "Silten" applies pause-tape jitters to flickering juke rhythms. The album is as sepulchral as anything on Tri Angle, but its darkness never feels like a foregone conclusion. It's mood music at its most ambivalent.
Tod Dockstader, Electronic Vol. 1 (Mordant Music)
Compared to works like Quartermass, this reissue of a 1979 LP is actually fairly easy listening, and for good reason: It was originally recorded for the library-music division of Boosey and Hawkes for their Recorded Music for Film, Radio & Television series. Bearing imagistic titles like "Jigjag," "Bottle Dervish," and "Howl Stomp," the pieces balance between pure electronic abstraction and more fanciful, conventionally "musical" fare. "Glider" strings proto-New Age glissandi over rolling waves of white noise; "I.C. Arabian" hops the rails from Kraftwerk country to the Middle East. It's not hard to see why the Mordant Music label picked up on this stuff; applying avant-garde methods to more approachable (if not exactly populist) forms, Dockstader's work proves an obvious antecedent to a broad sweep of contemporary experimental music, from Aphex Twin to Sunn O))). A companion 12-inch finds Baron Mordant and Ekoplekz putting their own warped spin on selections from Electronic Vol. 2, blowing out his bleepy miniatures to seriously psychedelic effect.