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Review: The Field Sublimates Repetition on Entrancing ‘The Follower’

The Field at ATP 'I'll Be Your Mirror' Festival
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 04: Axel Willner (centre) of The Field perform on stage at ATP I'll Be Your Mirror Festival at Alexandra Palace on May 4, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Nick Pickles/WireImage)
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 01, 2016
Label: Kompakt

The Field‘s muscular micro-loops are meant for small spaces — high-quality headphones, or crowded 250-capacity venues. Last October, the man born Axel Willner practically levitated such an audience at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, where he meticulously laid down the grinding hisses and pops of his ambient hypnoses, escalating the temperature of the room while forcing everyone’s heads down in a combination rave/meditation. Having never seen the Berlin-based producer before, I was carried away by his techno-powered propulsions in a way I wasn’t expecting after experiencing his 2014 magnum opus, Cupid’s Head, in the privacy of my own headspace. Following the dissolution of Willner’s live band and his experiments with a new synthesizer setup, that record’s dynamic follow-up, The Follower, is supposed to be heard from that sweaty space on the floor, sandwiched between moving bodies.

As such, the Field shared The Follower‘s first tracks as live tapings from his home base. Released earlier in March, “Monte Verità” — a cultural and geographical Swiss landmark, the name of which also incidentally translates to “hill of truth” — is, appropriately in name and aesthetic, the pinnacle of the six tracks on Willner’s fifth album. The club-recorded version doesn’t sound that much different from its studio-recorded counterpart but the fact that it was released first gives new heft to the human whispers circulating beneath the Field’s whirring machinery. On the title track, which Willner also unveiled live first, where the voice lands in the mix has the opposite effect: He drags out a woman’s raw-throated scream in the background for so long it sounds almost like the ragged screech of a machine coming back to life. And it’s much more chilling within the confines of your own sound system, reverberating around the empty, dark corners of your own home.

If “Monte Verità” is the murmuring A.I. heart of The Follower, next track “Soft Streams” is its inverse: a susurrus of whispers from six feet below, chopped up like bitter winds spinning through a cemetery. Its 11 minutes float along an uneasily optimistic melody, similar to the feeling of the syncopated piano notes of “Pink Sun” and threaded all throughout The Follower. This unnerved energy is at last resolved by album closer “Reflecting Lights,” a watery expanse of undulating synth pads befitting the recent resurgence in New Age interest. It’s a more emotionally mature melodic distillation of Willner’s noted appreciation of the Venn diagram of motorik, trance, and drone — a diagram he’s been one of the leaders in drawing, modeled after composer Wolfgang Voigt’s sublimely ambient Gas project. At times it’s hard to tell where exactly he’s going, but that’s okay when it’s all too easy to get lost in the Field’s subtly nimble percolations.