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Gutting the Beat

Beating the drum for German electronica

It wasn't until a few years ago that the cerebellum got mixed up with booty music, that furrow-browed folks began to deliberately examine beats intended for the butt and began picking these beats apart. In the process, some ended up deflating the bounce altogether, to the point that all the fun was sucked out of the word "house." It was right around the time the word "composition" started eclipsing the simpler "song" or "cut" or "track" as the noun of choice.

"That's a totally hot song!" used to be a great compliment -- and it still is -- but in the collegiate world of post-whatever electronic dance music, it's been replaced in some circles with a flat "That's a really interesting composition," followed by a sip from a cup of tea (pinky erect, of course).

Leave it to the Germans to inject -- God forbid! -- dry intellect into their dance music, so much intellect that it occasionally takes the joy out of beat-based music or injects a different kind into it, the kind that's present at a science fair. In typically post-something-or-other fashion, it's not enough to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of, say, an orange -- no, they've gotta cut the thing open, squeeze some juice out of it, scrape the skin and put it under a microscope, then fruitlessly try to reassemble it. They're doing the same damn thing with the beat.

Mouse on Mars: They appreciate a good "blurt" as much as they love a good "bump."
Mouse on Mars: They appreciate a good "blurt" as much as they love a good "bump."

There's more than one way to gut a beat, and even though Brainboy Un-dance Music has, in many cases, strategically "eliminated" the bouncy 4/4 beat and replaced it with so many off-kilter rhythms and subtle textures that you can't find a root, let alone a consistent snare, it has injected the form with lots and lots of hardcore thought and examination, and the results can still be totally transcendent, even if the music caresses your ears differently that the ever-wonderful house bump-thump bump-thump.

Germany: birthplace of concrete, home to Germans, land of the dry, analytical beat. In the past few months, two remarkable full-lengths have wended their way out of the country. One of them, by Various Artists, supplants the big beat and rotund snare with a load of tiny beat nubs and cinematic washes; the other, by Mouse on Mars, juggles the big and rotund with the tiny and gushing. Both are totally beautiful, and you'll like them if you're at all curious about oceans of digital sound.

Various Artists is the annoying-but-clever pseudonym for one Torsten Pröfrock -- annoying because when you type it into an online-record-store search engine, you're screwed and have to wade your way through a buttload of compilations; clever because it's kinda funny that he makes you do that. Over the course of five years and a half-dozen 12-inch releases, Various Artists has examined the soft side of the beat, the textured underbelly of an alligator, where Brian Eno's Music for Airports meets the tense moment when a 747 takes off, and the result has been uniformly gorgeous. Pröfrock, who also records under the pseudonyms Dynamo, Erosion and Resilient (Dynamo's "Aufenhalt" is one of the great electro cuts of the '90s) recently gathered two of his Various Artists singles, along with some reworkings of them, on one big limited-edition CD compilation.

The three originals on Various Artists' 8, 8.5, 9, Remixes (Fat Cat, U.K.), cleverly titled "8," "8.5" and "9," are somewhat soothing and occasionally tread dangerously close to some people's perception of (gak!) New Age. The only similarity, though, is in superficial tone; where most New Age is clumsy and deliberate in its intent, Various Artists is tense and unpredictable, with a bottom-heavy dub bass rumbling throughout. The highlight is the epic "9," a 13-minute mantra workout that couples a marimbaesque melody with few perfectly placed fuzz blips, and over the duration, the center of the composition -- yes, it is a "composition" -- gradually shifts as it gathers momentum. On first listen, it seems relentless and repetitive. By the third listen, the whole thing starts to bloom. After that, ingredients once hidden reveal themselves magically, until what was originally minimal is now grand and orchestral.

The remixes within 8, 8.5, 9, Remixes are by some of the premier beat-deflaters out there: Arovan, Funkstörung, Autechre, Pole and Monolake (the last act is on the same Berlin label as Various Artists, Chain Reaction). The most successful of them, as always, are those who retain the essence of the original -- something that Autechre seems to refuse to ever do. Pole, also from Germany, is by far the best, because he (Stefan Betke to his mom) spins a new idea inside the original, one that, as is his specialty, is deep and dub-infected.

Mouse on Mars love melody almost as much as they love confusion. They love rhythm, lots and lots of it, and tend to tease you with simplicity of melody right before they barrage you with beat pellets that work as both rhythm and countermelody. The result on their new Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey) is often playful and organic and always cerebral, but rarely in a spoilsport way.

Mouse on Mars, unlike Various Artists, appreciate a good "blurt" as much as they (Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner) love a good "bump," and they swirl both with the organic flavor of French horn, bass clarinet, cello, fiddle and saxophone. These brass and wooden sounds serve as decorative curlicues, adding whimsical fanciness to their often dry, antiseptic foundations. On "Dispothek," one of the most engaging and catchy compositions on the album, Mouse on Mars constructs a clicky, static-based rhythm, one that has a circular strength but still seems fragile and rickety, like a Ferris wheel built out of toothpicks. On top of it they place the always-perfect hum of an analog organ and weave in and out a melody that comes in fits and starts. There's a song here, and a solid one, but it's as elusive as it is smart. The entirety of Niun Niggung feels this way, a glorious house of cards glued together with superstrong epoxy, both synthetic and organic, though it feels way more the former than the latter.

Both records can be found at better record stores, though the Various Artists -- a fantastic record you should track down immediately -- may take some digging; a good bet is www.othermusic.com.

 
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