Friday, September 22, 2006

I.C.R.N. Review 2: Monochrome Visions

Miguel A. Ruiz - Grosor. (mv03)

Rafael Flores - Nubes, cometas, rumores y oregas (mv05)

h.h.t.p. and portable palace - Cavitation (mv04)

In a 2003 article for Contemporary Music Review on laptop music[1], I argued that electronic music has the capacity to represent what Deleuze and Guattari termed “the specific freezing point of the ideal.” Electronic and (post)-industrial sound is capable of transmitting a specific type of coldness which highlights the threatening aspect of technology but which can also act as an antidote to runaway cultural global warming caused by constant market-led demands to “chill out”, “go with the flow”, “take it easy” etc. “Cold” textures can create a sonic/conceptual space that can act as temporary autonomous zone or enclave within a superheated hyper-stimulated culture. In such a space it may be possible to effectively slow down the speed of the information flow and perhaps to think through some of the contradictions and possibilities of the present.

Making a very crude characterisation, we could say that there are two “poles” of the (post)-industrial sector/soundfield. One mode of industrial has always relied primarily on force and counter informational overload, violently annexing space within the listener’s consciousness and the wider culture. Another has gone “deeper” into the territories associated with industrial or dark ambient projects like T.A.G.C. or Coil. Of course, many, if not most groups oscillate between these extremes, even if one mode predominates. Yet there is another cluster of activity in between these two poles. In this mode force and percussive elements are still present, but there is also conceptual and sonic space (if not the vast abysses associated with Lustmord and others).

Of course, if we speak about global cultural warming, it has to be said that commodified Latin/Hispanic culture is a key “pollutant”. An insidious, clichéd, and unquestioned mode of musical and cultural “sexiness” is integral to the dominant pop cultural order. Therefore it’s always especially refreshing to encounter Spanish music that almost totally rejects this clichéd understanding of Spanishness in sound. Part of the Russian label Monochrome Vision’s mission is to unearth some hidden, obscure and unreleased material that helps to fill out the history of electronic music in the last few decades, as well as issuing more recent material situated in the grey areas between formal composition, sound art and the electronic underground.

Even if there weren’t so much genuine ‘lost’ or terminally obscure material from the 80s available for re-release, market forces would probably drive producers and labels to invent more in order to satisfy the current demand for it, and this may well happen once the archives are completely exhausted. Very few people could say with certainty that such and such a project hadn’t been released on a hyper-limited cassette release. The Monochrome Vision releases by Miguel A. Ruiz and Rafael Flores (a.k.a. Commando Bruno) are extremely valuable in increasing our understanding of Spanish electronic music, the perception of which is still largely dominated by the renowned and now highly collectible Esplendor Geometrico and more recent electro and minimal techno producers such as Reeko and others.

Miguel A. Ruiz was active on the industrial cassette network from 1986 and issued many recordings, using pseudonyms and his own name. The material presented on Grosor was recorded between 1989-91, a period during which many of the better know industrial groups began to dilute the “mechanicity” of their sounds and begin what was often a disastrous flirtation with rock (perhaps the value now placed on “re-discovered” and “lost” industrial material is that it symbolises the time when industrial still retained a genuine “apartness”, and hadn’t begun a process of self-normalisation and cultural adaptation). Grosor contains little beyond the name of its producer and a Spanish dialogue sample on Brain Velocity that suggests any Spanish connection. It exists in an idiosyncratic hinterland, and is neither exactly dark ambient nor percussive industrial. In some ways, the factory type sounds do already sound “historical” and yet they are very much needed and still keenly felt in our “post-industrial” present. Like many of the most skilful producers of this type, Ruiz is adept at suggesting and summoning a machinic unconscious or uncanny: the intangible but palpable excess that both actual technological/industrial processes and their (artistic) simulations can produce. In these simulated/created deserted spaces mechanisation and its traces are present as a spectre. Grosor alternates between (controlled) acceleration and near static passages within which the spectral elements surface. It is accompanied by a surreal/mystical Castilian poem which refers to the “post-industrial technosphere.” The album opens with what sounds like a factory process, whose cold, clanking elements build into an orchestra of echoing metallic sounds. By the start of the absurdly/frivolously titled Testicular Prawn, the process has “run out of steam” or radically decelerated. There are deeper clangs and reverberations, the metal orchestration remains but is now dragged out into subdued traces and rumbles. The process (or its aftermath) creates hovering clouds of metallic sound vapours. As the album/process proceeds, it further intensifies and smears into a series of ghostly chords, suggesting that this obviously esoteric technology has begun, either by design or by mutation/malfunction, to haunt itself. On Sin Apenas Coxis and elsewhere, quieter, and even graceful elements such as piano chords float to the surface, forming a film of gossamer toxicity. Mysterious, filmic, ethereal and sinister atmospheres drift in out of Ruiz’s sound pictures, which suggest numerous possible visions and associations, and challenge the common sense association between electronic coldness and unemotionality.

Rafael Flores’ Nubes, cometas, rumores y oregas presents more recent material, dating between 1994 and 2004 (tracks three to five, which are the most impressive of a very strong set). Like Grosor, Nubes immediately confronts the listener with a machinic process, an immense, fascinating grinding. Although first developed in relation to techno, electro and drum n’bass, Kodwo Eshun’s notion of sonic fiction[2] gives us a useful framework within which to understand this release. Applying a little poetic licence, we could even speculate that machines’ own fictions or fantasies might sound something like this, they certainly have a “starring role” in what are epics of the machine age. In Sanzoot a colossal but still detailed and textured sound gradually turns catastrophic and “orchestral” chords emerge from the dense sound field. The next track Sanzooot deploys a huge array of metallic sounds that become a focussed, sensual, looping rain of metal. This stands comparison with or even surpasses the best “metallic” tracks by Neubauten, Test Dept and other metal working groups. After this peak, Nubes slowly winds down into a series of desolate but still beguiling tone pieces, fading out with Luders, the sound of a “dying” machine performing its final operation.

Monochrome Vision’s fourth release, Cavitation by h.h.t.p. and portable palace sits in between the two Spanish releases in the catalogue. It is produced Dmitry Gelfand from New York and Andrey Savitsky and Kirill Domnich from Minsk (home to a surprisingly active musical underground). The three long pieces date from 2002 and while also “cold” in feel, they are more formal in their tone, and are closer to the electro-acoustic than the industrial context. However, the sounds are at least partly (post)-industrial in spirit if not in origin and ought to interest the “industrialised listener”. In the way it excavates cavernous space it mirrors some industrial ambient but is less theatrical than that “genre” tends to be. Although texturally clinical, Cavitation has a markedly eerie undercurrent that eventually becomes overt and suggests a techno-pagan ritual invoking dead machines, offering a simultaneously nostalgic and prophetic comment on our present reality.

[1] "Ice on the Circuits/Coldness as Crisis: The Re-subordination of Laptop Sound." Contemporary Music Review. 22: 35-43.
[2] Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, London: Quartet, 1998

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