May 19, 2003
Mouse on Mars
The Evolution Control Committee
The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up
May 16, 2003
Sly and the Family Stone
May 15, 2003
I’ve been listening to this album for quite some time—weeks actually. It goes without saying that Enthusiast is a very… listenable album. Replete with enough beats to overpower the straining hum of my Civic, it slides by the hours spent on my weekly drive up to Whistler. It also paints enough of a sonic soundscape to mask my overheated PC’s straining Volcano 5 fan. And, just last Friday, when cooking pizza for some good friends, it made some great dough-pounding funk that managed to drive from my head the ceaseless whir of the stove fan.
But it was only today—with the computer off, my car parked outside, and the oven cold and quiet downstairs—that I sat down and fully listened to the album. It is perhaps worth noting that up to this point, the album had not begged for my attention: it took a good deal of effort to give it a good bout of listening. And my impressions of the album reflect the nature of the album itself, which, as we shall find out, is rather lacking in its own nature. To summarize, Enthusiast is a careful, and for the most part clean work that embraces slow, beat-driven rhythms with dub influences. At points, it is reminiscent of both Tomas Jirku’s Sequins on Force Inc. in its quirky housiness as well as Mitchell Akiyama’s Hope That Lines Don’t Cross on Substractif in its minimal landscapes. But it never sways too far into a serious investigation of emotion or tension. I say “serious”—for certainly the album draws you in through a sense of gritty moodiness, but never demandingly so: the emotion is not raw, as in funk, nor tense from its absence, as in minimal techno. Instead, emotion is represented through a clean sound that has been slightly granulated or processed. It’s not so much “Hope That Lines Don’t Cross” as “These Lines Will Never Cross.” Parallel lines that lead in no determined direction, yet end before the open possibility of the horizon. There is an absence of tension that leaves a gap for a presence of calm which, despite all appearances, is not heard; the calm is found only in the comfortable lack of surprise, which accounts for the lack of sweat, and of funk: the direction of the music is ambiguous, which is what makes it so hard to discuss and describe. It is does not carve a fine line between genres of house, techno, and dub; it simply passes almost imperceptibly in the terrain of broken downtempo beats that Bip-Hop has carved out for itself, leaving little wake nor impression in the grey, plasticene landscape it, perhaps unwittingly, created—or leaves as its detritus. For the sense of grittiness is just that: a representation, and not an incorporation of violent upheaval, distress, or vacuous mindfuck nihilism. The trace or the hint of emotion is not left around to be used for some bonepicking critical review—it is carefully arranged and constructed into a pleasing syncopation. Pleasing—like Valium.
The long repetition of each track opens a minimal dub or house structure that is incredibly comfortable and stable, but strangely lacking in a solid groove. To paraphrase and expand upon the mythologies of Sun Ra and George Clinton, every Groove is founded from a chaotic plane of Funk, and whence the Groove is born, it shall carry all to the Kingdom: such is the manifesto that is still heard in powerful house and dub music today. Yet the Groove here is groove-lite: pleasant in its incarnation, yet dubious in its direction. It brushes moments of greatness, and its most potent manifestation is on the second track, “loose change,” which makes use of a standard dub-house tempo to carry the lightly structured movements through echoing synth riffs and careful piano delay dalliances. The result is a beautiful and cleanly minimal representation of dub music that rolls along without hindrance. But it is still representation, and lacks sweat. From the opening bars, the listener can tell where the track is going, and what it will be doing. It has no surprises, and it must be said that even a Groove rarely surprises—but a Groove always speaks: of love, of politics, of hate. If “loose change” speaks, it is of a different ancestry. Perhaps what we are hearing is not the evolution of dub music, but a strange isomorphism, one culled from hearing the structure of dub—its representation, its simulcra—yet not feeling its political slug to the guts of the echo-box. (And so there is nothing more to say…)
Enthusiast fares better when it aims for a house tempo and explores the rising harmonic properties of its sounds by arranging its granular echo-artifacts into rhythms. Viewed by these merits, “it can end with a letter” deserves a 12” release for its dance appeal. Emotionally, it spawns rising vistas and expansive thoughts, capturing warm, rolling synths in deep waves that swell and carefully descend, like an exciting—but safe—rollercoaster. A solid bassline chugs along, propelling the artifact-percussion and quieter dub-synth stabs that carefully punctuate the track. Eventually, a rising synth stab reminiscent of Detroit—especially Octave One—builds through harmonious layering, filtering itself into the aether and manifesting as a highly-pitched dub chord; then, the synth line descends in pitch back to the Detroit warmness and the bed of the track, basking in its own repetition. The technique is not new—David Alvarado and e.b.e. have been using it for years—but it works well when combined with the new sounds created by granular synthesis and software processing. And so it is a well-crafted dance track, but beyond that the enthusiasm is questionable, for overall, it only touches upon what it could be exploring. It hints at Detroit, but does not venture into Detroit’s emotional rawness. Overall, the track is warmly emotional in its distilled purity, and if it is anything that characterises this ambiguous album it is the presence of “pure” sounds across Enthusiast, an “enthusiasm”—or fetish ?—for cultivating rhythms from the purest of sonic palettes that are “interesting” to listen to, but only for a limited amount of time. A good example of this is “stickmusicbreaks.” The track begins by exploring raindrop-like artifacts that echo and play off each other in seemingly random patterns. The patterns (almost) imperceptibly evolve into a rhythm which calls for a djembe-like broken beat that drives the track into small dub chords, percussion, and organs. The idea is a good one; but its repetition carries itself nowhere surprising, and overall the track has too few musical ideas to sustain its length. The same can be said for “fluence,” and is characteristic of the majority of the tracks on this album.
It is perhaps worth asking something of the album title: what is si-cut.db “enthusiastic” about? There is groove, but always a little too pleasant; there is house, but never too sweaty; there is minimalism, but never too stark; there are synths, but always perfectly tuned… If I can hazard a guess, I would say that the majority of sounds has been digitally created and accumulated. And the problem with digital processing is that, when used primarily, the colourful grey area of the analogue variance is regulated into binary divisions. Even today’s most accomplished granular synthesis artists strive incredibly hard to overcome this problematic: witness the work of Joshua Kit Clayton or Ben Nevile. And si-cut.db’s most admirable effort in this regard, in his attempt to overcome a strange enthusiasm for distilled purity, is the haunting opening chords—shimmering, echoing, full of particles and issues—of “vistas.” The track itself is rare, for it is rather short, and does not create a full beat-structure. Instead, it explores in detail the echoes of raspy synths at a slow, yet beat-less, dub tempo. Eventually, these haunting synth formations pull down percussive snares that are caught in the same shimmering filter. A deeper synth line moves in from the side, but is subsumed once more by the careful poppings of slight percussive sounds, and the echo-box occasionally drowns out one or two sounds in an echo that holds emotional weight and speaks of despair, leaving, at the end of three minutes and thirty seconds, only the fading remnants of the gritty chords….
If there is one track to cultivate our musical memories, to create a lasting impression of this album’s contribution to the events of dub and electronic music, this is it—and I think it is a fair and honest sonic impression. But an impression it shall remain: the album fails, at some level, to creatively capture and put into motion its own methods of musical meaning. I admit there is an enthusiasm, but it is an enthusiasm for purity that cancels itself out in its grey repetition of simulated structures. It is a homogenous enthusiasm, where all waveforms blend into a (mono)tone that leaves the listener contemplating the album only as an additive solution to background noise: a car, a stove fan, a computer.
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