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In Electronic Beats (DE), December 22 (Dax) & 26 (Samuels) 2013.
Another year long gone. Musically speaking, 2012 was a great year―at least for me, as I see music not only in terms of fun but also as a way to calibrate myself with the world. Having said that, this year (as with every year) I've listened to a lot of different music by many artists, but I want to focus on five tracks that I liked and that changed my mind (and probably my life, who knows). Isn't this, at the end of year, what counts?
It's great when you can dance or just listen to music and suddenly realize that something has happened―but you don't know what it is. That's more often than not the moment when music becomes an adventure―to quote the mission statement of London's great Wire Magazine. Not least thanks to an extensive exchange of thoughts with The Wire's editor-in-chief, Chris Bohn, I discovered in many listening sessions great new insight while entering new sonic territory. The funny thing is that in the vast majority of cases, the music wasn't at all that experimental. John Cage, Eliane Radigue and Pierre Schaeffer have widened our horizons, defining music as boundless entities some decades ago―not to mention the work of their predecessors, Kraftwerk and Can, Miles Davis and Sun Ra, Autechre and Alva Noto and, and, and.
But let's put the focus on five outstanding tracks from 2012.
1. MEDITATION ON WAGE LABOR AND THE DEATH OF THE ALBUM by Terre Thaemlitz
Released on the 16GB USB stick album Soulnessless in May 2012 by Comatonse Records
This particular track, taken from Terre Thaemlitz' album Soulnessless is 29 hours and 40 minutes long. It's probably the longest single track ever recorded and released on an album. That's why the album comes in the format of a 16GB USB stick rather than CD or vinyl. I doubt that anyone will ever listen to "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album" focused and in its entirety. But we made this experiment at the old Electronic Beats office on Berlin Alexanderplatz: We'd let the whole Soulnessless album run non-stop over the course of a week. We'd probably leave the office late in the evening when "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album" was clocking in at 17:32―and come back the next morning being welcomed by the same song at 26:13. Point is, this single one long track with its slow, repetitive piano chord arrangement―which totally recalls Erik Satie's luring lullabies―has a very calming effect at first…say, the first few hours. Eventually though, you get aggressive. The piano chords starts to go on your nerves like a leaking faucet―but I bet this was exactly Thaemlitz' intention. I mean, why did he name the track the way he did?
2. EARLY ROMAN KINGS by Bob Dylan
Released on the CD/vinyl album Tempest in September 2012 by Columbia Records
"All the Early Roman Kings / In their sharkskin suits / Bow ties and buttons / High top boots / Drivin' the spikes in / Blazin' the rails / Nailed in their coffins / In top hats and tails / Fly away, little bird / Fly away, flap your wings / Fly by night / Like the Early Roman Kings". The Early Roman Kings Bob Dylan is referring to of course aren't Brutus, Caesar or Nero. No, the 71-year-old singer wrote this ode praising a violent street gang that was active in the South Bronx during the 1960's, comparable only to some Mafia street level organizations. Interesting in this piece is that Dylan appropriated both the melody and the arrangement from Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" (which, in fact, was an answer song to Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man") only adding new lyrics and some accordion playing by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo.
3. JAM by Moritz von Oswald Trio
Released on the CD/vinyl album Fetch in June 2012 by Honest Jons Records
I would have probably labeled the 17-minute opener "Jam" on the Moritz von Oswald Trio's brilliant new album Fetch ‘an extensive piece', but in the shadow of the release of Terre Thaemlitz' Soulnessless just some weeks earlier, "Jam" can't be even considered a ‘long' song. But what relevance do numbers and quantities have when it comes to groove? From Palais Schaumburg via Rhythm & Sound and Basic Channel to his new Trio, Moritz von Oswald has always been driven by percussive beats. On "Jam" especially, the tinny drum fill-ins and repetitive percussive elements push the music constantly. Suffice to say, the contributions of Max Loderbauer (NSI, Sun Electric), Sasu Ripatti (Vladislav Delay, Luomo) and guest trumpet player Sebastian Studnitzky all add to the overall flavor.
4. DARK STEERING by Squarepusher
Released on the CD/Vinyl album Ufabulum in May 2012 by Warp Records
When I met Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) in April during the Electronic Beats Festival in Gdansk, Poland, he surprised me with his in-depth knowledge about the French vanguard organ composer Olivier Messiaen: "Messiaen's compositions for organ were composed in the 1940s but could have been written or played hundreds of years ago―technically speaking. I mean, what he did was historically determined, and it wouldn't have been possible without, say, Bach and what came before him. But in a purely technical sense, the parameters given by the machine were the same at the time when he composed his organ works as they were in the fourteenth century. I sometimes ask myself how these instruments will be played in two hundred years. How will people write organ music in the future?" With all the post-breakbeat tracks on Ufabulum, and with the hymnic "Dark Steering" especially, Jenkinson tries to foresee the future by expanding our listening habits. One wonders what unfinished weird compositions Squarepusher is still keeping in his vaults―the unlistenable ones, I mean.
5. SDSS14+13B (ZERCON, A FLAGPOLE SITTER) by Scott Walker
Released on the CD/vinyl album Bish Bosch in December 2012 by 4AD Records
And yet another 21-minute long song to close this Top 5 list. This one is about a jester who is constantly telling jokes―and the absolute silence that follows his one-liners. To create this painful total silence, Scott Walker recorded the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2006 album The Drift both analogue and digitally―including a huge orchestra that doesn't play melodies but only sonic structures. But these are mere formalities. Just like Tom Jenkinson or Terre Thaemlitz, Scott Walker loves to walk on the thin ice of experiments and never-before touched territory. In this case the SDSS14―a solar system somewhere far out in the distance.
2012 was the year that I really, really, really wanted to say that men and women in black made better techno-that musicians steeped in industrial music had a more interesting take on all things dark, hard and repetitive. In fact I did say it, and so did a bunch of other people. But then I took it back because it wasn't really true… and because standout tech-dustrial ringleader Dominick Fernow is more in camouflage these days. The former Prurient mastermind has consistently released standout twelve-inches and EPs as Vatican Shadow since 2010, though 2012's September Cell is the pinnacle of his ongoing soundtrack to the War on Terror, with Ghosts of Chechnya hot on its tail. His work is a nod to Detroit and Brussels-cities that spawned important strains of shadowy electronics and operate historically as hubs of American and European military industrial complexes. Strangely, this is the music that made me feel like a giddy teenager. On the other hand, an increasingly prominent Berlin-based label owner with whom I spoke at the recent Cut Hands show told me he couldn't get excited about Fernow's romping live performances because he "wasn't a teenager anymore". Well, then pass me the pimple cream and give me detention.
That said, surprisingly few other releases by currently associated artists (Andy Stott, Raime and to a lesser extent, Silent Servant), on often grouped together labels (Blackest Ever Black, Bed of Nails, Hospital Productions, Susan Lawly) got me that excited-with the initial exception of Cut Hand's Black Mamba. And in the end, that turned out to be a pretty mixed bag, too. The blazing title track was my flower of hope, though it eventually wilted in a drought of equals that was the LP (follow-up to 2011's Afro Noise I). Live, William Bennett's Heart of Darkness-y footage of Haitian voodoo rituals didn't leave as bad a taste in my mouth as it did for some, and as is often the case, parts of the album made more sense at high volume. What bothered me wasn't the subject matter but the one dimensionality of its representation, both sonically and visually.
And so I looked elsewhere for artists doing the idiosyncratic four-beat amble (tölt!) through uncharted territory. While much of dubstep trotted along now well-trodden paths (or just beat the dead horse), in-betweeners like Cooly G, aka Merissa Campbell, wholly reinterpreted electronic soul with her emotive, futuristic recombination of UK Funky and quiet storm, resulting in music entirely her own. Playin' me is equal or superior to anything put out on Hyperdub, ever-and light years beyond certain aloof over-Hyped, art-project-y label mates.
Equally varied though more out there than Hyperdub was Bill Kouliglas' Berlin-based PAN imprint, which put out quality records by Heatsick (the not un-Daphne-like Déviation) and Lee Gamble (Dutch Tvashar Plumes, Diversions 1994-1996), as well the brilliant Mika Vainio/Kevin Drumm/Axel Dörner/Lucio Capece collaboration, Venexia. Gamble's Diversions was the most thought provoking of the bunch, as the past 12 months for me have been packed with conversations about the relevance of sample sources and the concepts/ideologies/histories that instrumental music sometimes purports to convey. Seeing Diversions through the one-sheet prism paid off, with knowledge of Gamble's intentions to deconstruct his personal Jungle history making the frequencies partially recognizable… or so I liked to think.
But 2012 had even more explicit electronic concept albums with bigger ideas and bigger payoffs, the most massive being Terre Thaemlitz's 30+ hour SD card ambient (and house) masterpiece Soulnessless. In 5 cantos, texts in a half dozen languages, an accompanying 90-minute video and DJ Sprinkles remixes thrown in for good measure, Thaemlitz has created an epic poem in the language of multimedia. Conceptually, the album is a Hydra of Marxist critique, taking on music labor's debased value, Japanese immigration policy, and the adverse effects of world religions-with a special focus on the Catholic Church. The idea that the ubiquitous pop cultural concepts of "soulfulness" and "spirituality" are slapped on any and all forms of heartfelt musical performance as a measure of authenticity is particularly salient-and relevant. Indie-fied black metal, upside-down cross fads and continued new age aesthetics as 2012's mirror manifestations of this skewed metric? If the shoe fits. Thaemlitz's anti-religiousness has been kind of a game-changer for me. What game you ask? The game of life.
On the thoroughly enjoyable non-conceptual tip were a series of electronic, groove-based improv albums all drawing from similarly diverse sound sources. Admittedly, the grouping is a bit of a stretch, but listen to the embeds one after the other and hopefully you'll find the common denominators. Topping the list was Carter Tutti Void's Transverse, featuring the live, post-industrial psych-tronics of former Throbbing Gristle members Cosey Fan Tutti and Chris Carter and the maximally innovative guitar sound of Factory Floor's Nik Void. Following close behind was Moritz von Oswald Trio's predictably dubbier, ear-bending (though not mind-bending) Fetch, as well as two releases by singular minimal maestro Ricardo Villalobos. The first, Dependent and Happy, picked up where previous albums left off, with his signature hollowed out, percussive tech-house shapeshifted by hallucinatory sample riffage and various mic-recorded percussion. The second, Villalobos and Max Loderbauer's modular-synth heavy "reshaped and remodeled" version of Conrad Schnitzler's Zug, more than made up for the pair's disappointing Re:ECM.
Clone Record's 3 Drexciya rereleases were also on constant repeat in the listening trifecta of office, home and brain, as was Gerald Donald's ultra-deep DJ Stingray collab under the guise of NRSB-11 and fellow Detroit-native Terrence Dixon's Far From The Future Pt. 2. Though still kicking myself for missing Stingray's appearance at the Panorama Bar a few months ago, I managed to catch Donald as Arpanet in //:aboutblank, which was outstanding-on par with this year's other live highlights, including Raster Noton's 15 year anniversary at the Berghain, the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio at the Exploratorium (with Paul Lovens and the jaw-droppingly impressive Evan Parker), the Fusion Festival (less about the music), Jennifer Walsh's captivating vocal schizophrenia at QuietCue, Rotterdam Terror Corps hooliganism at The VIP Room, and 3 unforgettable Kraftwerk performances at MoMA (Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, Techno Pop). 2012 was kind of Chanukka year round for me, so I can't trip about not getting a sweater or checks from family members I call far too infrequently.
Honorable mentions: * Morning Factory - "Analogue Sleepover" off the Clone Jack For Daze series: More please.
* Prodigy - H.N.I.C. 3 Mixtape: He should have stuck with Havoc's production on the proper release, which unfortunately sucked. Mixtape version is pretty good.
* Cecilia Bartoli - Mission: The Italian mezzo-soprano donned a scary bald wig to promote her album of sacred baroque music by obscure 17th century composer Agostino Steffani, who, paradoxically, was some kind of evil scheming Machiavellian priest/diplomat . This is one of the few times NPR's All Music Considered managed to convince me, and I don't really care about opera. Incredible melodies and digging the harpsichord.