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Heatsick’s ‘Re-Engineering’ Is an Easy-Listening Grad-School Thesis You Can Dance To

Heatsick / Photo by Christian Freckman
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: December 03, 2013
Label: PAN

How seriously are we supposed to take Heatsick? This is the artist, after all, who began his solo career recording a string of cassettes and CDRs with titles like Pre-Cum Fog Ballet, Milky Quilt, Searing Light of Glue Prisms, and Solipsistic Pillow; the artist who uses a Casio keyboard with most of its keys missing and plays two- or three-hour sets of slowly morphing loops; the artist who occasionally sprays his audience with Chanel No. 5. (Beats being in the front row at a Steve Aoki gig, at least.) The artist who, on his new album, includes lyrics like “Algorithm is a dancer.”

No shots, by the way. If anything, electronic music could use more dodgy puns of dubious intent. And if Britney can sell (and sing about) perfume, why shouldn’t Heatsick embrace the olfactory? But this project is hard to get a fix on, thanks to a slippery disconnect at its heart: These sorts of antics usually scan as “ironic,” yet there’s nothing jokey or po-faced or wry about the music.

In interviews, Heatsick — Steve Warwick, a British multimedia artist long based in Berlin — can come off like an overcaffeinated Ph.D. candidate. Consider his description of the concepts behind his new album from a recent interview with Cyclic Defrost: “It’s… a bit like that Burroughs idea where you would record a sound and then bring it back to a place in which you wanted to cause a disruption, play it back and it would cause riots. And even something like the Paradise Garage, where there would be a lot of sound effects, like rain, and then the sprinklers would come on. I’m kind of treating all of these ideas as being of equal value and worth and interest, and then relating it back to the cybernetics of the early 20th century, in which game theory and the cybernetic way of thinking changed the way that we process information, which has resulted in the internet and also the way that we interconnect with people and other objects, and how objects interact with each other.”

That is, as they say in graduate school, a lot to unpack — and that’s before he goes on to cite Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, David Lynch, and the philosophers Manuel De Landa and Timothy Morton. I’ll leave it to philosophy students to assess the relevance of speculative realism to Re-Engineering. Fortunately, you don’t need CliffsNotes to enjoy — that is, at the basic pleasure-center level — this cryptic, engaging album.

Re-Engineering is a short record, just 43 minutes. It is, despite the heady subject matter, profoundly easy to listen to. Still using his busted Casio and a drum machine, and assisted by the saxophonist André Vida, Warwick flits between vintage house, African jazz, and dub techno. He’s been working at this sort of otherworldly techno-primitivism for a while: His early records for PAN often sounded like they might be mistaken for something off Sublime Frequencies, and had the air of cheap plastic about them — both the instruments he used and the cassettes on which you’d expect to find them recorded, spread out on a tarp in a flea market in a foreign country. There’s a vague, non-specific otherness about it all, but rendered curiously flat.

Despite its humble materials, the music doesn’t feel overtly lo-fi. On the contrary, it’s often hypnotic and immersive. “E-Scape,” which takes after the misty repetition of the Chain Reaction crew, sets bubbling keyboard loops and out-of-phase LFO against a curlicued electric bass lick and just hangs there, like a .gif of a heat mirage. It’s not quite four-and-a half minutes long, but it actually feels much shorter, and I suspect that loop wouldn’t wear out its welcome at three or four times the length. “Mimosa” goes longer and deeper, using a lone set of chords as the foundation for an increasingly and deliriously top-heavy assemblage of jabbing keys and multi-tracked saxophones; as it builds and sways, it brings to mind the shifting infinities of Dinosaur L’s 24-24 Music, as well as, faintly, Ethiopian jazz.

“Emerge” and “Après Moi, Le Déluge” push similar ideas to the center of a heaving dance floor, bashing away at overdriven drum machines and canonical piano-house chords. As imitations, there’s something off about them: The tropes are spot-on, but the sounds aren’t quite right. But whatever technical “lack” you might perceive is obliterated by raw energy and messy emotion; it’s punk rock recontextualized for the Panorama Bar.

A few songs are straight-up gags. The 92-second “Watermark” is basically an excuse to present a track overlaid with voice idents — “This is PAN” — of the sort music journalists routinely suffer through. But even here, the one-liner turns out to be something more complicated, as a cool, deracinated voice (belonging to artist Hanne Lippard) is backmasked in mid-phrase, and interrupting bleeps become part of the fabric of the music itself. It’s times like these that the album takes on a kind of documentary character (as it does again in “U1,” a minute-long recording of a busker in the Berlin U-Bahn), as if to say: This is how we listen now. In that sentence, “Watermark” will ring true to anyone familiar with the Boomkat booooop.

On “Dial Again,” a voice acts out a mini-narrative over a bare-bones house beat, a kind of Krapp’s Last Dropped Call: “Who is this? I think you have the wrong number. Maybe you should hang up and dial again.” It might be an answer song to Green Velvet’s “Answering Machine” for the age of caller ID, but as with much of the album, it’s so deadpan that it’s hard to say what it might mean, or why it’s there. But, as with a lot of contemporary art, there’s more than meets the eye, or ear, in this case. In the credits, Warwick credits the album “to my dearest friend Jesse Garcia (1975-2013)”; that’s Garcia’s voice we hear fielding the wrong number on “Dial Again.” That knowledge adds a new degree of pathos to a song that otherwise might scan as inscrutably blank; it puts a provocative kink in a song ostensibly about miscommunication.

Warwick himself avers that the songs are “deliberately a bit vague,” in keeping with his interest in “liquidity.” “I’m interested in what liquidity has come to represent,” he told Electronic Beats; “something in constant transition — in between solid, liquid, or gas — that’s expanding or compressing.” Similarly, to Cyclic Defrost, he said, “We could look at everything that is in existence in the world and beyond as liquifying, solidifying, or evaporating. They’re in a state of constant flux, and sometimes they become reified into concepts, like a population or a city or plant life or humans. I’m looking at these ideas of emergence.”

Whatever it all means — again, we’ll defer to doctoral candidates to assess the relevance of Manuel De Landa and his The Emergence of Synthetic Reason — the album’s opening song offers the most explicit roadmap to his ideas. It is an invocation of sorts: Over a loping, ersatz Afro-house beat, Hanne Lippard reels off a stream of phrases culled from literature, ad copy, journalism, and corporate vernacular, as ceaseless and context-free as a Twitter feed. Her accent is indeterminate; her voice is cool and without affect, poised somewhere between Laurie Anderson and a speech synthesizer: “High street violence.” “Broken windows theory.” “Second annual trend report.” “Black power, gay Google.” From William Carlos Williams: “A poem is a machine made of words.” From Richard Brautigan: “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” From Blur, sort of: “‘Modern life is still rubbish,’ he said. Modern rubbish is still life.”

That last statement, “Modern rubbish is still life,” expresses one aspect of what I think the album’s project is: To compose a portrait of contemporary existence out of its detritus. This isn’t exactly a new or original idea; from Marcel Duchamp to that dude who wanted to print the Internet, grinding up high and low culture and composting them into a rich, brown loam is practically second nature these days. What makes Re-Engineering worthwhile is that the odd blooms Warwick coaxes from that soil are so pleasing to behold on their own terms. It’s critical theory as easy listening that you can actually cut a rug to, if you’re so inclined. Like the song says, algorithm is a dancer — and a slippery one at that.