From Here We Go Sublime
After centuries of music consumption, we're still obsessed with the crescendo. From all that classical music we learned in school to modern soundtrack fodder to the banal quiet/loud/quiet dynamics of groups like Explosions in the Sky, people still seek the thrill that comes when music reaches its stirring Big Moment. Blame remote controls or the death of vinyl, but 30-odd years after Brian Eno invented ambient music, most people are wary about "turning off" to any music that doesn't actively seek to engage them. Deep listening remains mostly theoretical in the age of mp3s.
Minimal techno isn't exactly built for the iPod age, so what's a post-disco producer to do when he wants the restraint but also the explosion? If most 21st century pop music could be whittled down to a ringtone without losing any of its effect, a dance producer who actually manages to hook the ear for six or seven minutes after that opening jolt-- while still rejecting, you know, narrative or harmonic development-- is doing something special.
Axel Willner, founder and sole member of the Field, is hardly the first to split the difference, but his formally simple yet functionally overwhelming music captures not only those big ecstatic peaks but also the initial ringtone-esque bursts like the two sides of the same coin they are, and basically just repeats them until he decides to stop tape. Willner's records under his Field alias (his other guises include Cordouan, Lars Blek, and Porte) do away with the build-up almost entirely while still milking the climax like a chemist running real-time tests to see just how long he's got until the drug's effect wears off.
That kind of pared-down sound-sculpting is everywhere in continental European electronic music these days, but rarely is it as instantly enveloping or as comforting as the Field's debut, From Here We Go Sublime. The album recalls Kaito, another artist on the German label with one great idea, likewise pushing wistfulness and simplicity to the brink. Favoring a dreamy minimalism of just a few sounds waltzing around each other, Willner smears, chops, and processes slivers of musical information-- the tips of a vocal, a note and a half of an instrumental-- in a delicate computer-assisted retrieval process. But unlike other maestros of hiccup and twang, Willner favors uncomplicated, revolving compositions rather than a loom-like mesh. It's a bare bones compositional gambit that could wind up utterly irritating, but with the ears of a hip-hop cratedigger and the hands of a surgeon is bliss. Gliding like zero-gravity skaters, opener "Over the Ice" spins, twirls, and pivots on just a shivering vocalized "e"-- split across two octaves-- and an undulating "i."
But if Sublime initially sounds set for the dancefloor and not the couch, it's strictly down to Willner favoring quick tempos and rhythms, like the concussive "uh!" and the bumping acid bassline on "The Little Heart Beats So Fast". Despite its nods to house and techno, Sublime is really an extension of the best ambient electronics of the last decade or so, especially Gas, a project of Wolfgang Voigt, who as co-owner of Kompakt Records is now releasing the Field's music. (Not for nothing did Willner's sublime "Kappsta" appear on Kompakt's Pop Ambient 2007 even as it could easily fit here.) Folks may also call the Field trance, because there's an often anthemic bigness to Willner's little sounds, a certain shameless bombastic quality to the way he deploys his loops and builds his arpeggios. And like both bog-standard dancefloor trance and ethereal Gas records such as Pop, Field tracks sound loud, even when played soft.
People may also call it trance because of Willner's elementary drum tracks, often just a deflated machine thump flecked with hi-hat hiss. Compared to peers like Perlon, Kompakt may not be particularly known for its adventurous drum programming but Willner's purposefully entry-level beats shift much of the percussive burden onto his melodies. And while Willner may be building his arpeggios out of baby love sighs snatched from the mouths of the Temptations (on "Things Keep Falling Down", sadly not included here) or strummed guitar loops nicked from nuggets of yacht rock instead of preset synth pads or Ableton plug-ins, his spirit animals are the likes of Sasha, Digweed, and Tiesto, guiding him on how to put his sounds together for maximum spine-tingly impact. There's a reason those guys sold so many records to a whole generation of folks looking for, well, the sublime. And like all those 2xCD 1990s trance mixes, an hour of Willner's vibrations may have you drooling for an off-beat or a key change or, hell, a build-up to crescendo.
But forget pop musical concerns for a second-- Willner's triumph on Sublime remains how he manages to isolate and repeat his little moments, transmuting them through the basic dance music building blocks of juxtaposition and repetition into something bigger, wringing pleasure out of the always potentially dull aforementioned "sound sculpting": The metallic schlurp of the drums and background hum of robot cicadas on "Mobilia"; the fingertip flutters of the textural stuttering all over Sublime; the hot and heavy pressurized soaking of "Sun and Ice"; the disembodied zombie doowop filched from the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" that echoes through the title track like Kraftwerk daydreaming they're a soul duo, before the voices finally unspool into a timestretched blur as the record fades out-- one of the most shiver-inducing moments you'll hear all year. Often the best part of Willner's tracks are those final few seconds, as on "A Paw in My Face", the guitar sample finally escapes its loop with a joyous twang of freedom (only to reveal its source as Lionel Richie's bloodless lite-FM staple "Hello"). If Willner doesn't hit at least some of your pleasure centers, well, forget your ears-- your nerve endings might actually be dead. Even three months in, it's a safe bet that From Here We Go Sublime will wind up 2007's most luxuriant record.