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Electronic Affronts

Claustrophobic Subgenres Get Some Fresh Air With New Releases From Tim Hecker and Bogdan Raczynski

Jess Harvell

By Brandon Soderberg | Posted 12/19/2007

It's been a strange year for electronic music. Kanye West sampled Daft Punk. Timbaland brought the rave to MTV. And even the guys with scene cred embraced the porous borders between pop and "experimental": Justice got rid of bass and made trebly, black-metal party pop, and the Field made house so micro it just became house again. The indie guys went a little more pop, the popular guys got weirder, and no one, musician or fan, could feel totally comfortable. This year's common theme is bucking expectations, so it's fitting that the year ends with releases from soundscapist Tim Hecker and electro-contrarian Bogdan Raczynski, two artists plenty ill at ease with genre lines.

Unlike most glitch and noise-happy electronic artists, Hecker pulls out emotions not usually associated with drumless shards of electronic hiss. His static-filled ambiance avoids abstraction; it feels human.

Part of this might be his connection to Canadian postrock: He's toured with Godspeed You Black Emperor! and did some time working with Constellation Records since-defunct shadow player Le Fly Pan Am. At the same time, postrock's melodramatic pall is absent from his work. He avoids the dramatic build-up-to-break-down, the grotesque cliché of postrock, in favor of meandering tracks that suddenly break out, thanks due to only the subtlest of changes.

On last year's Harmony in Ultra-Violet, songs bled into the next and turned alike tracks into electronic suites that maximized their lost-in-the-music potential. Harmony is Hecker's most digestible release and somehow, also, a drastic move out of his comfort zone: Earlier releases had a layer of stuck-between-stations radio static that made his music cohere. But it was also a gimmicky signature. The music on Harmony was noisy and indistinct, but wisely added moments of increased clarity, with the instruments rising above electronic processing and sounding like actual instruments.

This sound continues on the vinyl-only EP Atlas (Audraglint), consisting of two 10-minute-plus tracks, "Atlas One" and "Atlas Two," that make conventional rhythm-based electronic music feel passé. The EP is the kind of music that encourages temporary but complete devotion. It makes other records feel too complete or too perfect. Driving near an area of industry, the mix of factory noise and highway rumble will begin to make more sense than, say, a Boards of Canada release. You'll wish that Boards album was all electronic wheeze and hum; the beats will sound extraneous, even decadent.

"Atlas One" sounds like it starts in the middle, with full-blast buzzes and computerized groans under a slowly evolving or devolving guitar loop. Throughout, noises increase in volume and vigor, only anchored by that sloppy guitar before even that is taken over by hesitant feedback. Good thing this is a vinyl-only release: A slight break is necessary before moving on to "Atlas Two." Drone is replaced with nautical pings moving in and out of the speakers and building atop one another. Eventually they give way for extended notes and low-volume crackles. It feels underwhelming compared to "Atlas One." But, what wouldn't? This is anti-New Age music--ambient designed for discomfort and unease.

Bogdan Raczynski is signed to Aphex Twin's Rephlex label and, like most of the its roster, he revels in unease. Musical chaos and album-art stunts are the norm: 2001's Thinking of You has a cover of Raczynski in a dress and his 96 Drum 'n Bass Classixxx does its best to look like a cheap rave compilation from the '90s. At the same time, there's a sincere aspect to his music that other members of the Rephlex cult lack. Complacency develops on record after record of stuttering drill 'n' bass and ironic pranksterism, and it appears to occasionally bore the Polish-born, American-raised musician.

Like Hecker, Raczynski ingests his labelmates' signatures and spits them out into something more rarified, less rigid, and humane. 2002's My Love I Love, featuring a shirtless, fetal-looking Raczynski on the cover, is an album of warm, electronic love songs accompanied by organ and trumpet. The cover's so honest it's kinda funny, and all 17 tracks are named "My Love I Love"--a joke he brings back on his new alright! (Rephlex)--but still, it lacks the snark of typical IDM with scary cover art and clever titles. It's worth noting that 2002 also saw the release of Hecker's My Love Is Rotten to the Core, a sincere meditation on Van Halen's morph into Van Hagar using only manipulated VH samples to dramatic and comedic effects.

If an uncomfortably honest disc of love songs weren't already a sign of Raczynski's boredom with Rephlex convention, his ensuing gap in music-making--save for a hard-to-find collaboration with Björk--made it palpable. It also builds unbelievable tension for alright!, not just a new album but a return after a five-year hiatus.

On first listen, alright! feels like a bit of a joke--seven synth noodle-filled extended rave-ups, all with the same damned title of "alright!" But like most of Raczynski's work, it rewards those who avoid knee-jerk responses. What unravels is the album's bizarre tension; the drums stutter, click, and clack--all at rave-ready tempos--but it's accompanied by 8-bit keyboard stabs that are held for a little too long, leaving the drums and melody constantly in conflict. The songs have an anthemic quality not found on most Rephlex titles, and there's a melancholy to it as well; drums are always up, up, up, but the sounds accompanying this Looney Tunes techno share sonic space with the game over music of Nintendo games (the seventh "alright!," in particular).

Alright! demands an open mind as it bounces between "serious" and "fun" music, all in attempt to demolish compartmentalized subgenre indicators. Just as the fifth "alright!" turns into all-out soccer hooligan party music, the drums stumble over one another and the energy is cut off in favor of downbeat bleeps and bloops. Audiophile types will embrace the metallic tones and drill 'n' bass rhythms of the opening "alright!"--not to mention the ironic shouts of "yeehaw" throughout--but might get a little weirded out toward the song's end, as classic rave signifiers such as acid squelches and balls-out bass take charge.

Too sophisticated to be party music but not "smart" enough to satisfy elitist electronic heads, alright! fits nowhere. The same apprehension toward listener reward is found on Atlas, ambient music that isn't for yoga or airports but is never aggressive enough to offend either. It's music for no one and for everyone. And, in this case, that's a very good thing.

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