Without Keys or Melodies, and Completely Unscorable. My Album of the Year
It has been a great year, filled with releases from the likes of tUnE yArDs, Seun and Femi Kuti, Sepalcure, Andy Stott, Laurel Halo, Byetone, Shabazz Palaces, Matana Roberts, Vladislav Delay, Blue Daisy and so many others. To be honest though, my album of the year pick was chosen over six months ago. From the first time I heard it I knew there would not be another album created this year that could approach it. It was the type of sonic statement that simply could not be duplicated in a year’s time.
Still, I didn’t want the impact it had on me to negatively influence my listening for the rest of the year, so I put it in low rotation, initially weening me off the “I must hear this album all day every day” syndrome and eventually getting to the point where I had not listened to it in full for two months. By then I had managed to convince myself that the strength of so many other releases I heard in the year would change my mind upon revisiting. But once again as soon as I started playing it, it was clear – this is my Album of the Year.
It comes from the Bristol based minimal techno duo Emptyset. From the opening track of this, their second full length release, there is an apparent departure from earlier work. While you can hear their sonic explorations in many of the introductions on their self titled debut album, the bulk of the music on the album falls into the composed realm of minimal techno. If anything the self titled album and brilliant Acuphase EP, establish that the duo are in fact masters of form and genre.
That last sentence can be contested with any number of qualifiers, from “how does one establish mastery of minimal techno?”, to “how can there be mastery in something produced by machines?” If you’ve ever been in a conversation with someone where this challenge is raised, odds are you’ve either come off as a complete douche (as has the opposing view more often than not), or realized how difficult it is to explain to someone out of context, despite how clear it may seem to you.
The language is different and not easily translated. How does the finer points of kick synthesis compare to the craftwork of a violin. Actually there is a parallel but getting the opposing view to see it is the challenge. I’d like to imagine that Demiurge is Emptyset’s way of stepping up to the challenge, by deconstructing the complexity of the electronic instrument and its sonic palate. In Plato’s Timaeus, Demiurge is the name given to the physical creator of the manifest world, who is envisioned as an artist. I listen to this album and hear a Platonic study, where sound is the Demiurge.
“Departure” is a statement of beginning with the fundamental being the deep kick ringing through the noise of an expanding universe. It resonates with the vastness of space, gathering energy before unveiling its next tone. In the beginning there was boom, and with it power is established.
“Void” introduces a pulse from within space. The space is empty but also filled with unorganized possibility as noise. The pulse ebbs and flows, breathing life into existence. It grows in weight and presence, pushing itself to the limits of the “Void”, until it manifest as “Point”. ”Point” takes a dynamic level from the “Void” and works with the kick (which is the fundamental), and the absence of it, which is the noise. It is the weaving of these two with textural changes while maintaining a single dynamic.
From the “Point” there is that which is around it or the “Periphery”, an ominous view for which there is great depth, searching the order in the space. From this it is able to create the “Plane”. Four iterations at each repetition re-drawigh the four lines that create the “Plane”. The expansion of the “Plane” to establish depths creates a “Sphere”. In it the combination of all the elements thus far dance in a round. As it spins it speeds up; growth, previously in density, is now applied to time.
“Tangent” is pulled from the aether, in classic Emptyset form, introducing a heavy march. It takes the exploration of “Sphere” (where the variety of elements were able to play with each other as the time shifted), and reapplies it to a growth in dynamics. Sonic elements get introduced and reintroduced, tension builds and builds, and builds, and there is pay off before it builds again. It is enjoying itself.
“Structure” is a reexamination of form and shape. It isn’t a “Point”, it isn’t a “Plane”, it isn’t a “Sphere” and it isn’t space. It is something that is born out of the interaction of them all. Contemplated from the aether, a “Function” is given to the “Structure”. With this “Function” the “Structure” is able to play with the other elements to build a “Monad” that summarizes all that has been expressed in the movement. ”Return” is a final show from the Demiurge, establishing mastery of these elements. Then it sits back marvels at it’s glory.
If you haven’t heard this album you might be wondering if I’ve even been discussing music for the past couple of paragraphs, and indeed on rereading it I might question that myself. This is an album without established keys, no melodies, it couldn’t be scored (though I would love to do an orchestral work based on it), there are no hooks, and it doesn’t even have a Pitbull feature.
Despite lacking the characteristics we’ve come to think of as definitive of the term music, what Emptyset has compiled is a study of the fundamental architecture of modern electronic music. These are complex sounds which are almost entirely dependent on their paired element which is noise. Where the absence of note in traditional music is usually thought of as silence, here it is clearly fashioned as noise. There is no absence, even the emptyset is filled.
This duality is at the core of what is electronic music today. There is the clean purely digital sound which can achieve a type of clarity previously unimaginable. But there is also the noise which comes in an infinite number of forms. We know it from the analog world but now it includes many digital counterparts, and they all interweave with each other. This is the reality of our surroundings where low frequency hums battle for space with the pitter patter of the rain and laptop fans, while Drake autotunes out of a passing car and a baby cries.
Demiurge takes the complexity and confusion of the times, with sub-genre wars, retroremixupmainia, fondled field recordings, and stock upgrades, and brings it all back to the fundamental – sound. It’s a heavy sound (if I had one critique it would be that Demiurge demands a counterpart which addresses the softer sounds of electronic music), but the heavy sound is a perfect means of presenting how they can express on so many dimensions.
This is Emptyset establishing that they have poetic license. For the naysayers it is a means of revealing just how deep sound can go in the electronic realm. It becomes a baseline for understanding what is heard on the dancefloor, by providing the context to understand what is possible. Will it silence the critics? Well for the duration for their first listen, absolutely. After that I think some will have their ears opened up to a new form of hearing which will make it easier to draw lines between the previous paradigm and this evolving one. As for the others, those who will stop in the middle of the first track and demand some type of explanation… well… haters gon’ hate.