Friday, October 31, 2014

album review: 'flatland' by objekt

We return to my ongoing adventure into electronic music. 

Now one of the biggest conversations of this year has surrounded where electronic music is going. The EDM scene is officially mainstream, hip-hop producers are pushing boundaries for weirder and more experimental beats, often drawing upon the ground many electronic producers helped level, and some of the legends of the industry have taken steps to crystallize their own sound. Aphex Twin returned after years of working under other names to the sounds he helped define, Brian Eno worked with Karl Hyde on two wildly different records, and across the industry we've seen producers either drift towards modern popular trends or drag the mainstream kicking and screaming into all sorts of weirdness. For me as something of an outsider to the genre, it's been fascinating to watch, even if I'm not sure how long it will remain popular in the long term.

So I figured I'd dip back into that wretched hive of scum and villainy - and by that I mean Pitchfork - and find a record to really challenge myself, and that's where I came across Objekt. Stage name of German producer TJ Hertz, he began making serious buzz when he started releasing singles around 2011, not so much renowned for melodic construction but for phenomenal mix balance, depth, and texture. And what immediately gripped me by singles like 'Tinderbox' was the sense of contrast: there was a warmth to the crackle of the mix and the percussion that belied the echoing chilly synthesizer leads and samples and the thick swell of the bass. It felt organic and yet almost clinically measured, and it was compelling enough that I had to check out his debut album Flatland. What did we get?

Well, it's definitely interesting, that's for sure. The thing with Flatland by Objekt is that it's difficult to discuss beyond a straightforward recommendation, because in terms of electronic music, I don't really have a lot of frames of reference for it. I can definitely tell you it's pretty damn good, the sort of distinctive oddity I can appreciate without outright loving it, and while I don't quite think this record is entirely for me, I definitely get why it's been getting some real critical acclaim. 

So let's start with the greatest changes since those early singles - where there was a sense of crackling intimacy to his early work, Objekt has opted with this album to go for a more expansive sound, bleaker with crisp, clanking beats and drill-like textures, decidedly mechanical in its sound yet never harshly regimented or locked in place. If Thom Yorke's recent experiments with electronic music imply a certain stiffness, each piece in its place, the ideal machine, Objekt's record shows how machine music would actually sound, with slight irregularities and whirring elements that stutter and click to add more texture. It begins with 'Agnes Revenge', an explosive clatter into shimmering ambient synths with a subtle drip that is punctuated with fuzz before it repeats. From that opening track, the album kicks into gear with 'One Fell Swoop', a single low chiptune tone keeping cadence amid the rattle of static and a slow crescendo of low, thrumming synths and drilling beats, as if the songs are assembling themselves, pulling hollow booming metal sheets that are socketed together on 'Ratchet' as the melodic tone gets slightly more complex. The synths gurgle before locking down at every whir and burst of static, becoming melodies that interweave into the industrial flavoured 'Strays', complete with echoing misfires that crash across the mix before fading into a cavernous symphonic melody with half-heard vocals echoing across the mix before the edge of the beat materializes again. And with 'Agnes Apparatus', a partial reprise of the first track's rush of synths, the machine appears to be complete, the melodies slightly off-kilter but fully formed. 

Then the mood of the album changes. Where the industrial side before wasn't so much dark as it was mechanical and impersonal, 'Dogma' kicks off the much more unsettling second half, the ominous double kick of the beat, almost like a heartbeat, through the thin film of fuzz, occasional real snare drums and the plinking, reverb-enhanced melody. From there we get 'First Witness', deep, dubstep-inspired synth waves swelling against pitch-shifted vocals, ominous shimmering synths, and in the mirror to 'One Fell Swoop', a single repeating chiptune. It's also here where we get the first hints of a possible story: a human question to our machine to whom it might belong, and how that person first saw or heard it, and it only has one answer with various degrees of inflection: 'She found me'. Perhaps this machine was not meant to be assembled in this way, found instead of created, and yet it lacks the mode to express itself further. From there we get 'Second Witness, a song all beats half out of step, synths fading in and out, and the rhythms and melodies starting to spiral apart with squealing voices seeming to protest. That same breakdown seems to take place, but louder on 'One Follows Another', with blasts of static and shrill squeals only given any sort of foundation by the deep, muted bassline that will pick up into a subtle gallop and chill thin keys that are almost completely overshadowed by the sputtering, almost drill-like blasts. And then there's 'Cataracts', an ambient piece with mournful dirge like swells, a few sputtering synths, the rattle of metal slivers, and a a lonely, echoing voice that barely forms words beneath the reverb - if the machine was forcibly disassembled in earlier tracks, this is where its fragments are trying - in futility - to reform.

So that's how the album sounds - does it work? Well, it's tricky to say. It does manage to set an impressive mood, and the production is damn near top of the line - expansive, layered, minimalist but with enough Aphex Twin-esque subtle changes and flourishes to reveal more and more with each listen. And like that most recent Aphex Twin album, this is not a record that opts to go for wild experimentation or off-kilter shifts in tone - once you get a handle on the atmospheric synth lines and industrial elements, it's a record that feels remarkably cohesive. But I do have two issues with Flatland that keep me from really loving it, and the first shouldn't be remotely surprising to those familiar with my tastes - namely, the lack of distinctive melodic progressions. Don't get me wrong, the percussion and beat progressions, especially on the first half of the album, are very memorable and are easy highlights, but as the momentum slows and the album's construction begins to break down, the lack of anchoring melodies can make certain songs feel less memorable. Granted, part of that has to do with the progression of this record, which leads to my second point - yes, it's completely thematically appropriate for this album to gradually fade out and ebb near the back end, but without memorable anchoring points, especially in contrast to the front half, it can lead to a finish that can feel a bit underwhelming, even despite how much I really liked the finale of 'Cataracts'.

So in the end, I was a little surprised how much I liked Flatland by Objekt. I suspect many of the rave reviews from those more familiar with electronic music come from the sheer technical excellence on display, to synthesize many of the sounds on this record so effectively, and I can definitely respect that. But it's one of those albums I find I can respect a lot more than I can connect with - I wholeheartedly suspect I'm way off with my description and interpretation of any 'arc' on this album, but the fact it could evoke that story is telling in and of its own right. For me, this record is a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking an enigmatic and challenge electronic music project. I won't guarantee you'll like it, but I bet by the end of this year, you will remember it.

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