Scuba Death – Nitrogen Narcosis (Further Records, 2014)

I think it can be difficult to create a concise record that adequately summarises its thematic device in just a few tracks and with almost the bare minimum amount of musical content; Ambient Techno can be a bit hit and miss in that regard, often floundering under the nature of its minimalism and failing to make its point sufficiently clear and interesting across its span. Fortunately Scuba Death’s dark and evocative Nitrogen Narcosis perfectly illustrates our rightful fear of the oceanic abyss and the particular dangers of exploring it too deeply for human beings.

I love the way that there’s a certain deliberate flow in the album that sees us descend into oblivion that’s demarcated through the track titles as well as the music itself; opener “Receptor Antagonist” marks the aquatic beginnings of the record, interposing mechanical clangings with dripping water as we prepare to descend, supplanted by the intermittent washes of light waves that splash on our body alongside the energised and almost excitable beats as we begin our descent. Everything feels very anechoic and tight, a closed and muffled space where we’re left alone. But the danger is real and our initial submergence is nought but a memory by the time “50-70 Metres” comes along; somehow we’ve slipped a quarter of the way into the photic zone and our narcosis has already reached the point of drowsiness and delayed responsiveness. Heavy breathing squeezes its way through the mix, obsessed by it, reeling in flurries of lucid terror as whining glitch strobes infrequently out of the deep, dark drone void.

There’s a certain clarity through this gaseous drunkenness within “Nociception”, or the sense of potential or impending harm. It’s the bleakest and darkest track thus far as the drone movements fraught with tension and doom close around us, a muffled watery expanse that contains a few sparks of synth beats trying to get those neurons to fire cohesively and act to rectify our increasingly desperate situation. Squeals of some horrendous electronic creature create bridging spans of unrestrained but inoperable fear, trapped and unable to right ourselves. “Helium Tremors” sets in, although perhaps it’s not as jittery and incapacitated as its namesake would suggest. Much of the piece cruises along at the same pace as the others but there’s a faint textural evolution that inches us towards a darker place; there’s a certain collected attitude about it in the face of danger but it also feels blissfully unaware, drifting deeper downwards and spirally delicately out of control.

“90 metres” informs us that we’ve slipped even further, the light levels diminishing increasingly as our tunnel vision sets in and as we fall deeper from the surface light. More concerningly, unconsciousness is just around the corner for us at this juncture, but at this point all hope is lost and we don’t even know or care; it’s watery and disquiet, sharp in its presentation but merely an alarming interlude before “Rapture of the Deep” arrives to close the album. Another name for the intoxicating effect of certain gases at high pressure (ala the LP title), the longest track of the album is allowed the most growing room, as well as being permitted to be the most sparse and dark. Fragmented stutters of glitching synth wails form the pulses of audiovisual hallucinations that we’d expect but the beat driven pace of the album is restored to supplement the menacing drone cruise of the backfield, the abyss calling to us as we drift down into its heart. It fades away slowly, consciousness finally ebbing in the final few minutes as we become lost to the dark.

I love the strength of concept displayed here, and the fact that whilst the evolution across its span is subtle there’s definitely a sensation of losing control of our senses and ultimately of the situation, our fear of the deep dark overcome by the increasing depth and its effects on our body. There’s a few weak spots and I wish there was perhaps a little more variegation in the beats displayed but I love how engrossing and twistingly morbid it turned out to be, invoking some of Umberto’s darker and emptier moments at times. Surprisingly excellent and deeply thought provoking release.

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Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven (2013)

First release of the experienced electronic artist Daniel Lopatin on the exclusive Warp label, R Plus Seven.

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I’ve never been an OPN man personally; every album of his that I’ve heard has always been a confused jumble of sounds and ideas; piercing, emotionally deficient electronic/ambient that meanders along at its own weird pace. It was especially obvious in his collaborative album last year with Tim Hecker Instrumental Tourist, where Hecker’s neat, exacting dreamscapes collided disharmoniously with Lopatin’s crazed and illogical wafflings, dragging the entire album down in a confused haze of half-completed jams. I didn’t, therefore, have high hopes for this new album, but as it turns out I’ve found myself progressively falling in love with it.

Opener “Boring Angel” introduces itself on a bed of organ drone, something which makes its way into the fray on occasion throughout the album. Carefully it builds up, spreading its wings with synth arpeggios that suddenly jump in tempo and start strobing. It’s certainly far from boring as the track unwinds itself, slowly phasing out the electronic melodies and reverting back to the blissful organ ambience from the start. It moves a little awkwardly (admittedly this is a leak so there are some possible faults) into the tropical “Americans”, and it’s like something lifted out of a Secede album. Flashes and flutters of MIDI samples weave in and out of the mix, children’s voices and “ahhhhh”s propelled with jovial percussion, before the track bottoms out in the middle and grinds along in a rising haze of dark drone and glitch beats where it once again changes track and decides to return to the lightweight sampling from its start, with crazed and syncopated percussion fighting for its chance to be heard in a brilliant closing statement.

“He She” moves into somewhat more menacing territory during its 1:34 duration, cruising along at a relatively unadventurous pace before finally cutting off into “Inside World”. Some might find the sickeningly increasing frequency of MIDI samples here somewhat unappealing, but its quiet ambience interrupted with bursts of sporadic samples are like heartbeats or breaths of life into the track, introducing currents of music and trying to revive the dying organism. The disjointed snippets of violins, voices and songs are like the intermittent firings of neurons bridging and remembering, trying to reignite and restart themselves.

As we reach the mid album one of the better tracks appears, “Zebra”. A semblance of rhythm finally appears in this quasi-EDM piece with its strong synth attacks and smeared vocal cries. It comes and goes, cycling through these glitchy riffs and the more drone focused periods of calm, but there’s never a crossover; like the zebra’s stripes it’s always black and white, the delineation between dance and ambient, between calm and energetic, is a strong line in the sand. Interestingly it appears that calm wins out, as for most of the latter part of the track the vigourous electronica dies away and low-key ambience takes over.

This respite of calm thoughtfulness continues on in the especially quiet and introspective “Along”, cruising along effortlessly on a bed of unobtrusive drone for its first half and only slightly creeping out of its shell around 3 minutes in as chimes and panpipe samples cut through, and snippets of birdsong and water drips float in alongside. Again it has a strong Secede vibe to it, and almost a Balam Acab-esque attitude towards the very end as we get a few dark beats in the fray. But this peacefulness doesnt last long as we’re thrown right back into the deep end with chaser “Problem Areas”. Possibly the most driven piece of the album so far it sustains a repetitive wet synth riff going throughout, tacking on those MIDI vocal glitches and other spurious chunks of electronica as and when before flatlining into a wall of organ drone.

“Cryo” makes sure we have something to cool down to before the final two tracks, which is most definitely necessary. Its cold bells and drone and distal shimmering synths balance that energy out once more alongside thick, slowed down drum beats as we move into penultimate “Still Life”, a dark and oppressive track. It’s hard to get a bearing on what exactly OPN is trying to put across in any of his pieces really but in this one especially so; sometimes it crawls with a claustrophobic darkness filled with heavy bass beats, other times a more serene attitude is taken with droning vocals and light shimmers of synth. Then out of nowhere in the core of the track is a surprisingly rhythmic sequence of thick percussion and piercing minor key riffs. It’s a bit all over the place to tell the truth.

Finally we get to the last track of the album, and one of my favourites, “Chrome Country”. Its spacious 70’s synth introduction is gorgeous as it’s accompanied by pleasant piano skitterings and the blurry MIDI samples of child vocals, a nice cooldown at the end of a confusing and complex affair. It still feels extremely detailed and introspective though, relishing these moments of quiet as it languishes on intermittent beds of electronic sound, not planning on doing anything extravagant before it bows out to a brief interlude of impassioned organ playing to finally finish the album off where it started.

I guess this turned out somewhat lengthier and less emotionally resonant than I initially anticipated because R Plus Seven, like all of his other albums, still leaves me questioning what I’ve heard and somewhat dubious as to the cold precision of the electronic, and in many ways in a processing state as to the texture and sample barrage I’ve just been subjected to. The short conclusion is that I like this, a lot; it comes across a bit stark and meandering (very meandering at times), but there’s a cheekiness in the balance of energetic sampling and cool drone that makes this album extremely compelling at times as we have to wonder continuously just what he’s going to throw at us next.

Jonas Munk – Pan (2012)

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Jonas Munk’s legacy continues with the first album under his own name, Pan.

Munk’s work under his Manual alias is, as I’ve mentioned before, some of my favourite music ever, and he seems to have a magic touch in whatever other projects he gets involved in (ie, Limp). Naturally, I was excited to learn that he had released a new album and jumped on it immediately.

I knew this was going to be a deviation away from the sounds of his other projects but I’ve always liked his style and was hopeful it would be carried over sufficiently in whatever this album had to offer, and I was right. As per usual, there are rich guitars, plenty of analogue synth fiddlings and a generally upbeat and optimistic feel, but…something just isn’t hitting the spot for me here.

Munk is a wanderer, his typical compositions are often clearly thought out and considered, but they feel spontaneous and on the fly, effortless. As his early albums moved away from structured melodies into shoegaze and then ambient, it became clearer that Munk was looking to break away from the constraints of full blown melodies and apply the same structures to beat-less meanderings. That’s why Pan‘s Progressive Electronic pieces surprised me; they feel to perfect, too precise.

Tracks like “Current” and the opener “Orca” are overlong; they start as they mean to go on and sadly lack a great deal of, well, progression. At 8 minutes apiece they don’t do an especially good job of maintaining a level of interest; the crooning guitars and sun-soaked analogue synth just cruise along with an established beat with no intention of deviating. The more ambient, bite size pieces like “Senses” and “Blue Dawn” are much more pleasant, oozing along at a luxurious pace and offering a nice, warm reprieve from the relentless leviathans that surround them. Their cousin, the title track “Pan”, has some nice, low key, electric guitar fiddlings that remind me a little of Mike Oldfield’s work.

“Schelling” is a bit more like it, growing from a small, metronomic rhythm into a full blown piece with a barrage of intermingled textures; from weird little flangers all the way to coarse, feedbacked guitar fragments. It’s all very quiet as we move into the space-age “Sea Of Orange”, with its gentle, reverbed weirdness, like it’s been plucked straight from a Steve Roach album, circa 1980. It’s like the sound of reflections on the surface of an ocean from another world. Very nice, but totally out of place.

Again it appears we have a problem with consistency, with tracks here just not slotting together and forming a cohesive, logical album. It’s silly, it’s like he wanted to go back to beat-orientated music but squeeze ambient interludes in as well and try and make it all fit together. It should work, you’d think it would, but it just ends up as being uncharacteristically messy.

6/10