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Accidents Will Happen

Electronic Music's Experimental Edge Gets Glitchy With It

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 12/18/2002

Glitch electronica has been part of the post-rave sonic continuum at least since Oval began wrecking CDs and selling the skipping, near-unfathomable results in the mid-'90s. But it was with the 2000 release of Clicks_+_Cuts, the double-CD manifesto of Frankfurt, Germany, techno label Mille Plateaux, that the style began to feel less like a blip in the overall post-dance framework and more like a mini-movement. "Mini" is the operative word here. Glitch, as the name implies, is less a style of music than a way of making it. Usually, it involves chance occurrences and technological mistakes--like the bite-size shock-spritzes of static from CD burners, or the clicking noises of a malfunctioning hard drive. And there's a strong compulsion for highlighting random, real-life sounds--the click of a door lock, for instance, or an in-taken breath.

That might sound willfully inaccessible, but too often Clicks & Cuts (thankfully, the label straightened out the punctuation for the second and third volumes) has the opposite problem. For all its avant-garde pretensions, much of the time this stuff functions as beatwise Muzak. That's one reason 2001's second volume of the series felt like overkill at three discs. The other reason is that it was overkill: As music writer Douglas Wolk pointed out in Spin, the 36 songs would have been exactly (maybe more) as effective at two minutes as they were at the five to seven minutes most of them ran.

The increased presence of vocals on Clicks & Cuts 3 helps alleviate the fear that something similar will happen around this time next year. MRI's "Painkiller" submerges a female voice till it shivers like static in a TV frame over menacing bass blurts and keyboard zit-zats. Even more effective is Luomo's "Melt (AGF/Dlay Edit)," which dissolves a tinny guitar, weirdly ebbing dynamics, and a vulnerable male vocal that keeps getting swamped by the music's rising tide into something that takes the basic sound of Luomo's brilliant 2000 debut, Vocalcity, further into both the abstract and pop realms. AGF, aka Anna Greie-Fuchs--the vocalist with the Berlin group Laub--also appears with her own "Pianos," and while her voice helps the rather subdued track, the lyrics ("All the rules are there to be broken/ Melody and rhythm/ Are they really necessary?") don't.

Most of what we get, though, are warm bass pulses decorated by staticy, ricocheting little beats that circle around each other and themselves to no great event, from the electro-ish beat-riot of Geeez 'N' Gosh's "Kleine Hausmusik #16" to the slo-mo creepy-crawly textures of Deru's "Migrade" to the billowy drone of Mikael Stavostrand's "Onside." It's one thing to rework a familiar series of patterns; it's another to lack forward motion, or even much sense of form, while you're doing it. That's the problem with this type of concept disc: One great idea doesn't guarantee two dozen (or even two) great results. There's a reason compilations are usually made after the music on them has already been issued.

The brazenly titled The Only Blip Hop Record You'll Ever Need, Vol. 1 proves this beyond a doubt. A single disc compiled by a pair of scene outsiders, Luaka Bop co-honchos David Byrne and Yale Evelev, with no agenda except to find the good stuff, Only is striking for how adamantly hooky even its more abstract tracks are. The disc's beats are straighter and narrower than a lot of Clicks & Cuts 3's--more houselike, without actually being house most of the time--but the textures are more varied, from the cavernous beat-box rhythm of Marie + Scratch's "Gnit" and the warm static of Pole's "Taxidub" to Mouse on Mars' horns-not-horns "Mykologics." The disc's one serious misstep is the title: Nobody calls this shit blip-hop except Byrne and Evelev.

At the very least, that's hardly the moniker that fits Safety Scissors vs. Kit Clayton's surprisingly involving Ping Pong EP. Taking the idea of Aphex Twin's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball," which took its rhythmic cues from a contact-miked rubber ball, to its logical extreme, the disc is exactly what it says it is: 36 tracks built around a friendly game of table tennis, each segment titled for its score. (Apparently, Clayton won 21-14.) The first track flanges the ball's clackings until it turns into a disorienting haze, and by "0-2" they're stretching it to sound like zooming static. Personal fave: "10-7," which is 12 seconds long and sounds like a jack-in-the-box played in reverse.

A similarly bouncing-ball groove grounds "Unt It Led States Of," a standout track on Mouse on Mars' new EP, Agit Itter It It. It's mostly leftovers from 2001's Idiology, the second of what we'll call the German trio's "pop" albums. (The first was 2000's Niun Niggung, which was a woozy sprawl compared to early MoM discs such as 1994's Vulvaland and 1995's Iaora Tahiti.) But this EP's groove-heaviness works, particularly in the way "Spotanous Reconstruction" decorates a throbbing house beat with MoM's typical stretched-rubber twangs and malfunctioning-microchip noises. The group sounds like it's inching closer to straight dance music--mainly, it seems, to subvert it more effectively.

Still, the most effective marriages of body-moving imperative and let's-push-things-forward experimentica tend to come from folks who make the glitches work for them. Marc Leclair, the Canadian producer who records as Akufen, plans his accidents by recording his dial twists on his regular and shortwave radio tuners, then turning the most striking sound jumbles--static, music, voices, whatever came over the transom--into finished tracks. My Way, his first album, documents a kind of idealized information overload, sounding like a cross between grainy, dub-happy microhouse and the fast-darting cut-and-snipped sample fantasias of the religiously minded New Jersey garage producer Todd Edwards. The sampled sputters from Leclair's airwave nickings that kick in on tracks like "Skidoos," "Deck the House," and "Late Night Munchies" thread together snippets--glittering chimes, piano tinkle, dozens of unidentifiable clicks and clanks--like a string of paper dolls in different shapes and colors.

Akufen's approach has frequently been compared to Matthew Herbert's; indeed, Herbert recently remixed the My Way single "Wet Floors." But where Akufen spreads his found sounds out across expansive machine grooves, Herbert obsesses over minute sonic details with forbidding precision: No producer alive gets crisper high-hats, ghostlier organs, or more exquisitely contoured voices. Yet he's also a stickler for incorporating mistakes. As Herbert's personal manifesto (from his Web site, www.magicandaccident.com) puts it, "The inclusion, development, propagation, existence, replication, acknowledgement, rights, patterns and beauty of what are commonly known as accidents, is encouraged. Furthermore, they have equal rights within the composition as deliberate, conscious, or premeditated compositional actions or decisions."

Secondhand Sounds: Herbert Remixes is stuffed with such happy occurrences. Herbert's "D-D-D-Dazzle Dub" of Dimbiman's "Koppchen" stutters the vocal, turns the bass into a glistening water slide, and (it sounds like) ties and quarters the beats till they float. "Aerosoul," by Wishmountain (a Herbert alias), turns a spray-can sample into nimble funk; his "Tasteful Dub" of Moloko's sing-along club anthem "Sing It Back" turns it into lounge music from the moon. Even more so than his fine albums--1998's Around the House and 2001's Bodily Functions--these remixes demonstrate Herbert's flair for making the abstract concrete.

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