30/07/20 This week I have been mostly listening to…

Kettel – My Dogan (2006). The Dutch musician, Reimer Eising, aka Kettel, is something of a rarity in electronic music circles (especially those tagged with the joyless term ‘IDM’) in that his tracks are by and large, exceedingly jolly. In what tends to be a very self-consciously serious genre of music, generated by circuit boards and lines of code, Kettel stands out as an unapologetically cheerful ray of sunshine.

I’ve enjoyed his album Whisper me Wishes for many years, which combines glitched-out beats and unadorned classical instrumentation. He followed that with Myam James Part 1 in 2008, which takes fizzing 303 acid lines out of their normal rave context and sets them to joyous melodies atop bouncy breakbeats. And although it precedes those albums, My Dogan feels like a combination of the two.

A classically trained musician, Kettel’s compositions on My Dogan meander and burble along like flowing streams. From the wooded glade bathed in sunlight on the album cover, I could imagine this as being an alternative soundtrack to a Gummi Bears cartoon, or some other hallucinatory Disney story about mythical woodland characters. The occasional plucked strings, wood-chimes and snippets of birdsong or water flowing give everything a wholesome pastoral feeling – but mixed in with that you have 303 acid bass and fidgety, rubbery breakbeats bringing the lightly psychedelic vibe. 

The Gummi Bears – cheerful woodland folk

Kettel does very well not overdoing the jauntiness on My Dogan, and keeping the Disney factor in check, by slowing things down now and then with some ambient interludes between the beat-driven tracks. Halt Him is composed purely from half-heard snatches of voice, birdsong, rustling trees and gentle melancholic pads, it feels like waking up from a dream-filled snooze in a sunny meadow. (He explored this style over the course of a whole album on 2002’s Vollyed Iron). The only track I find a little too cloying is the playfully titled Follow Me!, that hammered out piano refrain is just a bit too jolly and clanging for me. That is a very minor complaint and overall, this is a thoroughly pleasant album, which I imagine would make a perfect accompaniment to a psychedelic trip, where one needs music free of hard edges or sinister elements lurking beneath the surface.

Future Sound of London – Environment 5 (2014). I may have awoken a sleeping giant by delving into the vast amount of material the Future Sound of London have been quietly putting out, for several years now. Five years after going off-grid, having shocked fans and critics alike with their 1960’s psychedelic rock pastiche The Isness in 2002, they began self-releasing volumes ‘from the archives’. 

I was always content to stick with the classics (i.e. the four albums they released as FSOL in the 90s) but after seeing repeated mentions online that the previously unreleased material in the ‘From the Archives’ series, and the new works released as the Environments series, was every bit as good as their seminal 90s stuff…well, it seemed silly not to check it out.

The Future Sound of London – sonic travellers

Environment 5 features 13 new tracks (or at least, they were new when they were recorded in 2014) exploring the ‘space, time, dimension when we die – the moment of departure’. You’d be forgiven for assuming from the description that this would be a darkly bleak album, but that is not the case. 

As you would expect from FSOL, this is seriously tripped-out, psychedelic music, which it helps to approach with a certain wide-eyed naivety. It would be easy for music in this sort of style to come across as cheesy – the wordless mystical chanting, liberal use of Asian instruments and percussion. Lots of (Western) artists have come a cropper trying to use these elements to imbue their music with a sense of worldly wisdom or ‘authentic’ mysticism. But FSOL are so far removed from any sort of contemporary scene, their music speaks for itself (plus they’ve been doing this shit for 30 years).

Rather than a journey to the afterlife, album opener Point of Departure puts me in mind of the beginning of a different kind of trip. The sensation of latent energy and impending vertigo as the various elements of the track begin flowing together and approaching the jumping off point.

Here and elsewhere throughout the album, the cinematic production and use of Asian instruments give the feeling of being in an epic saga. The track, In Solitude we are Least Alone, begins drowsily, the first half of the track features some kind of wind instrument (maybe a Shehnai? – for a music fan my knowledge of instruments is very limited) and could be the soundtrack to the opening of an epic Bollywood film – calling to mind scenes of the Himalayan foothills, misty valleys, tea plantations and quiet temples. Halfway through the bottom drops out of the mix and we hear the first electronic sounds on the album: reverberating pulses of bass echoing across the valley. It works perfectly, and the combination of mystical and futuristic is classic FSOL.

I admit there’s no denying this is full-on hippy-dippy music but I find it impossible not to enjoy something so luxurious. It helps that Cobain and Dougans are also production masterminds, and you almost don’t need any lysergic assistance to feel like this music is coming out of the headphones in technicolour.

One other highlight to mention is the final track, Moments of Isolation, which unlike the title suggests is another dreamy epic. A simple piano refrain is joined by a wordless vocal, which puts me so much in mind of the lilting tenor of one Kevin Parker (of Tame Impala fame) and gives the track a kind of stoned lovelorn vibe. And imagine what a collaboration that would be. We can dream at least… 

Funckarma – Solid State (2001). Like Kettel, Funckarma are another widely respected Dutch electronic act (comprising brothers Roel and Don Funcken). Though unlike Kettel, and unlike their surname might suggest, Funckarma’s music is much more on the cerebral and weighty side.  

Solid State came out in 2001 which, if any year is deserving of the title, was probably ‘peak IDM’. Much as I hate that term and its connotations, it seems appropriate – notable 2001 releases include Drukqs, Go Plastic, Confield and Double Figure. Although Funckarma aren’t considered electronic music royalty in the way the artists behind those albums are, Solid State certainly holds its own among the big hitters.

Each of the 12 tracks is its own richly detailed and carefully constructed little world. On album opener, Blex, the pitter-patter of a heavily processed and treated hip-hop beat emerges out of static, to be joined by a gentle rising melody, composed of twinkling chimes. The mix is eventually engulfed by static and clouds of electronic distortion and segues into Lolala, where the swarfs of white noise form part of the track, along with a richly organic-sounding drum beat, which is joined by piano, what I guess is a saxophone or some kind of brass instrument and eventually strings. It’s a weird combination but it’s one of my favourite tracks on the album – sounding like a late night Jazz trio, playing in some smokey bar which is gradually being consumed by clouds of static. This is followed by my actual favourite track on the album, Lawk (I don’t know if the names are just nonsense words or what). I once had this playing on headphones while cycling through a torrential rainstorm; the storm eased abruptly and as the clouds cleared I cycled straight into the sunshine and just as the melody unfolds fully (around 3:00) a rainbow arched directly overhead – circumstances couldn’t have fit the track any better really. 10/10 on the lushometer.

I could continue in this vein, but as a lazy summary let’s just say it sounds like Autechre but with more melodies. A really solid album, which I’ll always come back to. 

Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 2 (2009). Of the many changes wrought by lockdown life, one very minor but unexpected effect is that I have found myself listening to much more ambient music. I’ve always put faith in the power of music to elevate my mood, and transform any situation I find myself in. Especially the mundane and drab surroundings of the work commute, where pre-lockdown I would select music to rouse my spirits/block out the world/decompress and relax, etc, delete as appropriate.

But as of the last five months, the vast majority of the time I have spent listening to music has been while sitting at home, and the vast majority of that is time sat working in front of a laptop. This means I have been drawn much more to music that isn’t distracting, and which instead of elevating my mood, will compliment a focused mindset (which of course I maintain dutifully for the entirety of the working day). 

Xerrox vol 2 has been on my to-listen pile since, like forever – I just never really found the right time to listen to an hour of purring white-noise drones, composed from samples of Michael Nyman (and others) which have been copied, blurred, copied, blurred and copied again, ad noiseeam (hence the xerrox). 

I think in the past, I never got beyond the first minute of opening track Xerrox Phaser Acat 1, which feels like standing just outside the entrance to some kind of industrial site like a quarry or powerplant – clearly man-made but as these places tend to be, devoid of any actual humans. The vibrating roar of machinery builds, gathering in intensity and layering over upon itself, but then around three minutes in the clouds of static part and gentle synth pads emerge. It reminds me of the haunting opening to Laura’s Theme from Twin Peaks (which Moby used so effectively to give Go its deep melancholic euphoria).

Much of the rest of the album is in this sort of vein: epic builds of static, noise, drone and the sense of vast space or suppressed power. As ‘noise’ music goes this is pretty gentle, the fourth track Xerrox Meta Phaser is probably the noisiest – again the sensation is akin to being in the presence of a very powerful machine (at its peak this track reminds me of the one time in my life I have witnessed an MRI scanner in action). 

This kind of machine-generated white noise is such a common backdrop to modern urban life it can actually be quite soothing to have something resembling it humming away in the background, and in fact I have a colleague who listens to the sounds of vacuum cleaners on headphones when he needs to concentrate. Not that I would reduce this album to the meer hum of vacuum cleaners – although the xeroxing process has corrupted and blurred the texture or the originals, the fragile beauty and cinematic quality survives intact.

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