Friday, March 13, 2015

album review: 'levon vincent' by levon vincent

So here's one of the frustrating things about being an album critic covering electronic music: if you're not careful, you'll end up missing a lot of music. To some extent, electronic music has always been somewhat driven by singles that are then chopped and remixed into dozens of different forms, but with the rise of the Internet, there's been even less of an incentive to put together complete albums. As such, it's a lot more likely for an electronic producer to have built up a considerable following or even some brand of critical acclaim without ever dropping an album.

This seems to be the case for Levon Vincent. Originally from New York before moving to Berlin, he's been steadily building a following in the electronic underground thanks to a selection of very well-received EPs and 12'' singles throughout the past decade. And thanks to the sudden growth in interest in deep house and darker, more challenging brands of electronic music, it doesn't surprise me that Levon Vincent might choose this time to drop his debut, self-titled album. And for me, it's a good chance to continue my exploration into electronic music and check out the meticulous work of a veteran I might never have had the chance to hear - so what did we get?

Honestly, a record that's surprisingly difficult to describe, even for the brand of techno that Levon Vincent works in, for a reason I haven't often encountered: single-mindedness. Not quite a uniformity in sound or boiling things down to their most basic, but a commitment to a formula so deeply defined that once the formula is described, what is there else to say? It's not like the roiling mechanical architecture of Objekt or the careening melodies of Arca and especially not like the lurid and heavily orchestrated debut from Todd Terje - no, the self-titled album from Levon Vincent is sizzlingly methodical. And I have to be honest, I did dig it, more than I expected.

So let's talk about that formula, shall we? For one, there is a primary focus on melody, and like most electronic music in this vein, it might initially seem like once you have a solid four or five note progression, you'd stick with it and only switch things up with small alterations. Vincent doesn't do this - instead his significantly more complex melodic progressions will change up considerably on average a good four or five times within the song, either through altering the main progression or layering another prominent mid-range synth to create a richer harmonic arrangement. That mid-range is another major factor: the majority of Vincent's synth choices sit directly in the mid-to-low end, which means even when the beat or percussion is minimal - which happens rather often - there's always a melody rich enough to drive the groove. And the synth tones really work for that as well: rigid and sharp, chill and dank enough to be subterranean, and yet spacious and warped enough to a pseudo-futuristic vibe. 

And that melodic groove is critical to this album, because it's not like there's much here in terms of drums or beats. Sure, the beats are here - often with a surprising amount of deep texture if you listen closely - but they play very much in support of the synths. And there's even less drums - sure, there are points where you get some cymbals or maybe a little kick drum, but for the most part they're absent. What we get instead to augment the melody are the background effects, which often prove to be the most interesting and varied parts of these mixes, especially considering the ease with which Vincent balances them with the primary melody and creates a cohesive sound. The synth swells of 'The Beginning' that both entice and yet almost seem implacable in their immensity as they seem to fragment at the song's end, the subtle atmospherics of 'Phantom Power' that beautifully compliment the driving melodies, or the ragged industrial crunch of 'Junkies on Hermann Strausse' that midway through the song accelerates into a thicker, louder, much more noisy groove. Similar change-ups take place on the more atmospheric 'Launch Ramp to tha Sky' against the xylophone-like beat - that honestly does run long - that eventually materialize in the last two minutes with a rush of gleaming staccato keys, vocal samples, and even piano. And really, these change-ups and evolutions become the most interesting moments on the album beyond the melodies: the twinkling melodies that still feel melancholic on 'For Mona, My Beloved Cat/Rest In Piece'; the crackling skitter against hazy waves of bassy melody that would reprise on 'Anti-Corporate Music' with a stuttered barking groove and warped waves of fluttering distortion; the ghostly fragments of 'Black Arm' or the smoothly organic yet implacable strings groove of 'Small Whole-Numbered Ratios'.

So if I have so much praise for the moments that do change things up, where does this album stumble? Well, not many places - when you build on such strong melodic grooves, the only places you misfire is when the experimentation goes awry, like on 'Confetti' with the hollow vocal samples and fragments of synth against the plinking beats that seem off-time and way too thin and brittle to support the rest of the track. But a larger issue does come that if the base melody doesn't hold up, the background elements can hold interest but don't exactly have the same driving structure. The best tracks from Levon Vincent can balance both the structure and the flourishes that push into wilder, weirder territory... and if I'm looking for an area where this record underwhelms me a little, it'd be here. Sure, we get moments that get grittier or push the melodies wilder or try to achieve moments of pure organic beauty outside of the groove, but rarely whole tracks that can really thrill or excite me - which you need to have for electronic music in this vein, even when it is this military.

And look, to some extent the melodic grooves are good enough that it won't matter, which is the odd contradiction of Levon Vincent's self-titled debut - you don't want to compromise the momentum, but at the same time the experimental shifts are when this record really comes to life the most for me. As such, this is an easy album for me to put on and enjoy, but it's not one that I find really grips me or wrings out a lot of raw emotional power. In other words, it's a damn solid electronic record that I can easily recommend, and it's getting a strong 7/10 from me. If you're looking for some damn solid melodic grooves to throw on your next party with friends who listen to a lot of deep house or techno, Levon Vincent's self-titled record is definitely not a bad choice, so check it out.

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