Because culture's moving a mile a minute and there's a new technological advance every 38 seconds, it's assumed that music is correspondingly noisier and more frenetic. The soundtrack to the millennial din, if you will. I can see why: The kids are cranking up Korn, or they're at raves making the galvanized walls of warehouses vibrate with "fat beats" and "good vibes." And then there's this harsh, brand-new genre for black-clad, depressive-type teens, which news organizations like 20/20 have dubbed "Goth." (I believe it's the opposite of folk.)
But anyone who's really paying attention to the musical landscape has noticed that it's becoming sparse. Melodies have been clearcut. A clanking, arrhythmic sound is all that's left in some places, a hypnotically repetitive series of electronic clicks fills the others.
I've approached this, um, trend, with the utmost skepticism. I mean, who are these people calling themselves Pole and To Rococo Rot and Pan Sonic? And why do they insist on making my speakers crackle and pop like some diabolical bowl of Rice Krispies? I know they come from the same country as Kraftwerk and Can, or at least from somewhere in that expressionist-breeding region, but must they produce music that sounds so barren, so cold?
Actual conversation between me and my friend Peter:
Me: I just don't get the Pole album.
Peter: Try listening to track four.
Track four, of course, sounds a lot like tracks one, two, and three. That is, the crackles, beeps, and hums are jumbled about, but the aesthetic holds true. Still, the stark blue packaging of Pole 1, and the fact that it came from those avatars of taste at Matador Records made me try to explore it from a few more angles. I slipped the follow-up EP, Pole 2, into my player and listened patiently as the keyboard squiggles, oscillating bass, and untraceable electronic noises coalesced into a discernible and quite fetching song (albeit one called "Fahren," which Pole's mastermind Stefan Betkes doesn't bother to translate from the German, but which I took to mean "Far"—as in "You're a long way from understanding my music"). A few tracks in, I began to like it. I was getting Pole. Until another friend, Matt, called me one day and destroyed my sense of accomplishment.
Me: What do you think of the Pole albums?
Matt: I like the first one, but the melodies on Pole 2 come too much to the fore.
How I learned to stop worrying and love minimalist electronic music
The other day, I opened a package from Peter. In his ongoing campaign to forward my understanding of this elusive genre, he'd made me a mix tape. He titled the tape "Sesame Street LSD Laptop Ambient Funk"—in its shift from the innocent to the complex, the very name lured me away from the type of mindless pop I'd been reveling in. Several of the featured tracks were by Kreidler, another German act whose new album I'd procured but then studiously avoided. As it turns out, Kreidler's a four-piece group from Dusseldorf that brings a sense of whimsy to its music, which is probably too detailed to be considered minimalist, though it does rely on chirpy electronics as much as on the traditional bass and drums to propel its rhythm. My attraction to the nonverbal soundscapes on Kreidler's Appearance and the Park (Mute), coupled with some of the other songs on Peter's tape, rekindled my effort to understand this form. Not that I'd devote weeks to tracking down Kraftwerk albums, or re-visit Steve Reich or Eno, or seek out the dozens of other "pioneers" known primarily to musicologists and aficionados—I just wanted to sample some of the new minimalist electronic offerings, and have a good time doing it.
Is it live or is it Memorex?
No one will ever confuse Pan Sonic with the B-52s. The Finnish duo's records consist of menacing drones, unsettling (if warm) tones, and a panoply of irregular beats that slowly, methodically transform from austere to hospitable. I liked what I'd heard on a few earlier releases, and I was particularly impressed by the increasingly focused soundscapes and exceedingly intricate textures of A (another Mute release).
When Pan Sonic appeared at the Breakroom last week, it became immediately clear that the performance wouldn't spark a "party out of bounds." Our men Mika and Ilpo stood center stage behind a bank of machines and wires and in front of a screen that registered the surging sound in black and white waves. Loud, abrasive, and yet in a way charming, Pan Sonic's set forced about half of the crowd—which had come to see headliner Trans Am—to seek refuge on the sidewalk.
Just a click before I go . . .
Minimalist electronic music won't make me burn my Blur or Swell or even my Chemical Brothers albums anytime soon. But some of this clicking, ticking, swirling stuff unfurls a stimulating alternative to rock; heck, it even nudges a type of music historically on the fringes closer to accessibility. Since most of the acts are still relatively underground, I'll tip you off to a couple of other recommended, forthcoming discs. Keep an eye out for Nobukazu Takemura's Scope on Thrill Jockey, and To Rococo Rot's first full-length bow on Mute, Amateur View. It ain't rock 'n' roll, but I like it.