Alongside a string of cassette and CD-R releases, last year saw acclaimed full-length albums from both Brooklyn’s Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) and Los Angeles’ Rene Hell (Jeff Witscher), securing their names among the most innovative composers of new electro-acoustic music. Vermont based label NNA Tapes presents their latest works as a split LP.
Originally conceived as the audio accompaniment to a multimedia installation with fellow New York artist Nate Boyce, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Music For Reliquary House is an instantly disorientating listen. Dizzying, jagged frequencies tumble and fight for space under claustrophobic waves of fractured digital speech, grating overdrive crackle and a distant Juno drone. Patterns and littered rhythms begin to form out of the scrambled vocals, but are soon dismantled or washed away by rushes of harsh noise, recalling the broken nightmare rave of Fenn O’Berg tangled up with Robert Ashley’s alchemic In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoven….
What is immediately clear is that Lopatin is not treading the same comfortable ground as 2011′s Replica. Gone are the familiar piano shimmer and mutant electro swing, replaced instead by an intensely textured tapestry of noise. If anything, it feels more like an evolution of the harsher, freeform sound of his early C20 releases than either of his recent full-lengths.
This is the exact territory in which OPN works best. Amid the glut of modern electronic composition rooted in thrift-store keyboards and scrambled VHS tapes, Lopatin’s music stands out best when shunning any sense of analogue nostalgia. MFRH finds him bringing vintage sounds and sources into a harsh, modern realm, where their flaws are amplified by digital technology, their limits pushed until collapse. The landscape is that of an electronic junkyard, where batteries in unrecyclable toys have corroded and leaked acid onto the motherboard of some antiquated computer, its microchips suddenly booted into life, short-circuiting and babbling binary nonsense.
Suitably, Rene Hell’s In 1980 I Was A Blue Square picks up on this confrontation between control and chaos, human and machine. “Meta Concrete” opens with a rolling piano lullaby and the faint sound of clockwork bells. A wave of glitches and high-pitched frequencies rises up but, rather than consume or entangle the composition, seems to play out alongside it, like two separate improvising performers attempting to find some common clarity. (At times it is conceptually reminiscent of Pita’s astonishing Get Out Pt. 3: orchestral melodies struggling to overwhelm a stranglehold of digital noise).
“Quelque Terreur” feels like the coda of a longer composition, as bright synthesised strings swell and sigh with the peaceful grace of a Stars Of The Lid ballad. A cloud of high frequency crystallised tones follow the ebb and flow of the piece like sand in a wave, moving in as though to corrode the sound, before pulling back, unable to defeat it. “Prelude To The Bridge” is the standout, where the extreme and the elegiac find a perfect harmony, and glitches and beeps swoop around a bed of Reichian arpeggios and energetic piano. Here, the electronic interruptions give the piece a tremendous sense of adrenaline and evolution, in line with the tempo set by Lopatin’s driving chaos, but far more controlled and composed – human, even.
However, Witscher’s final half finds him stripping away the digital interference completely, leaving his lush, glacial drones to rise and fall undisturbed. Though undeniably beautiful, the minimalism does create an unsettling tension; despite the warm serenity of the drones, we’re left on edge, expecting to be taken away from this comfort zone with an interruption that never actually comes. “bl, qs ” even ends with the same fluttering piano and distant bells as opener “Meta Concrete”, but the circle still feels strangely incomplete.
In a way it mirrors the climax of Music For Relinquary House, as it is not until the final minutes of Lopatin’s piece that a sense of human control emerges, and familiar OPN shapes begin to emerge. The chopped vocals stretch beyond single syllables and full words begin to form (“nature”, “polished”, “orientation”) before the voices disappear completely. The crackles and feedback finally subside, giving way to a regulated, staccato synthesiser beat and – unsettlingly – a ghostly church choir.
The split LP is a curious format. As listeners, we approach them with the expectation that the artists will complement each other in some way; while we’re not looking for call and response pieces, one inevitably seeks to make a connection – if not between sounds, then through some correlation of the individuals’ ideas (at the very least, we can hope to not be too jilted after flipping over to Side B). It’s a tricky science, but NNA have succeeded in their choice of artists here. Both feel delightfully restless and eager to explore new terrains, but are equally cautious to map a safe path home before entering too deep into the wilderness.