In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on new, emergent, underground music—picks up where his last essay on the framing of music left off, zooming in on new albums by Blondes and Huerco S. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
Sometimes the frame is part of the picture. Sometimes the gallery, too, and the city it’s in, and the eyes that look at the picture. So why draw lines around where the art is? Sometimes a picture seems to know all this. Two recent albums have reframed house-and/or-techno like this: Blondes‘ Swisher and Huerco S.‘s Colonial Patterns. Though they sound pretty different on the surface, they’re complementary—both are working through the same process with different outcomes. This process involves expanding out from older conceptions of where the ‘music itself’ is located and incorporating the sonic and formal consequences of its context into the wider musical appeal.
Swisher, for example, is presented to you as you might hear it in a club: less individual cuts than house beats and hooks blending seamlessly into one another as if mixed by an astral DJ, tracks passing from theme to theme over their several-minute lives and not necessarily turning back. This is all the more satisfying because it’s not quite something you really would hear if you did wander into a standard house set on a standard night (look at the cover—what sort of night would have a flyer like that?). It’s bathed in low-Celsius streams of improvisational electronic minimalism, the kosmische microwave background. It’s like stepping into the clubs of that world you always wanted to visit, the one lit by a giant blue star, the one where the humanoid creatures step along with a sad dignity and no-one quite notices or cares that you’re there. There’s an almost melancholy voyeurism when you visit this imaginary club, where heads are down and backs are turned.
And since it’s on a recording, it’s a live set that you can relive, like a memory of an evening untainted by the facts. Two and a half minutes into “Andrew”, for example, when the vocal hook first came in, and the feathery organs slowly began to protrude from the backs of the clubbers’ necks, and you realized you really were a sojourner. But then your upper vertebrae began to tingle.
Like a lot of the electronic music around that relates obliquely to dance, Swisher operates on several temporal levels at once, leaving you suspended between all of them, a modern consciousness that apprehends the cells in the soil and the galactic clusters riding the aeons. At the bottom of the spectrum are the sixteenth-notes, the eighth notes, then the kick drum, the dark center of gravity, and panning up through the fractal structures we get to the four-beat bar, the four-bar phrase, the eight-bar phrase, and on and on until there are drones and loops that last for several minutes (the distinction between a drone and a loop is only one of degree—speed anything up and it becomes a drone, slow anything down and it’s made up of loops). To perceive time in its relativistic and grand gamut like this is breathtaking, and it’s not an experience that can be easily attained on a single 12-inch. Again, this is a truth experienced over the course of several hours in the club, where the 12-inches link together to form an apparently seamless drone, a great chain of socio-musical being. Somehow, Blondes have managed to infuse Swisher with this feeling of an epic stretch of time in only just over an hour. The best albums are the ones you could spend the rest of your life living inside—stalling the heat death of the universe in the intensive, imaginary time of a virtual realm.
The stroke of brilliance is in leaving the best track—the most coagulated, alert, and urgent—until the very end. “Elise” is the moment it all makes even more sense than it did before; clarity suddenly descends. It could not have had half its effect without what had gone before. It would just have seemed like another weird house track with an attractive if mawkish refrain and, y’know, lasers and that. But after everything that you’ve been through, Blondes have made you worship its gawky, sloppy, plucked-string hook. It’s not that they’ve pulled some trick that disguises an ‘OK’ track as a ‘good’ one—it’s more radical than that. They slowly and carefully show you that in the right context and in the right frame of mind, there is a white hot attraction waiting for you in anything.
While Swisher zooms out to show you the club, the frame in Colonial Patterns is a zooming in, showing you the grainy physical life of the sounds themselves leaking through boxes and wires, so close up that you no longer see the wood for the trees. The forces connecting the sounds begin to weaken and they float freely as autonomous objects, and aren’t trees lovely up close when we can feel the rough bark under our fingers and smell the sap? Where are we again?
With its small-scale, up-close, lo-fi techno diatoms, it’s hard to imagine Colonial Patterns without the rise of Actress a few years ago, of course. But before we use this observation to dismiss Huerco S., first imagine a culture in which there are dozens of Actresses and dozens of Splazshes, each with only relatively slight differences between them. With all Actress has taught us about the endless indescribable wonder of microscopic subtlety, doesn’t this sound like an attractive proposition? It’s certainly a world that deserves, and probably requires, a team of explorers working together. And though it’s not a competition, Colonial Patterns stands tall next to Actress’ recent work.
It’s the distances in Colonial Patterns that I like the most. No matter how intimate and physical the acoustic space might feel, there’s always the sense of some objects in the foreground and some in the background—bizarre voices and faces peering out like some child or animal tucked into an already claustrophobic Beckmann painting. Then there are the sounds, like in the eventually more expansive “Towards the Sun”, that are more than the sum of their parts, that aren’t just bits of synth with hiss on them but some amazing chameleonic blend of hiss and tone sounding with a single voice. This isn’t a black and white world of noise and signal, it’s a smooth one gently oozing with beings that have yet to be understood.
The text of the Colonial Patterns press kit bears an uncanny resemblance to the way people used to write about early indie-rock band Pavement twenty years ago—deconstructing pre-established pop styles and flushing them with lo-fi as an anti-slick maneuver. It’s as if it doesn’t constitute a style itself but merely acts upon previously anointed styles (remember people, pop music stopped producing new and genuine styles sometime around 2003—any talk of a meaningfully new style must necessarily be somehow false). Does the music offer more than this? I do think there’s potential. If something really is deconstructed, it’s not simply parading the same old aesthetic oppositions, such as slick vs rough, picture vs frame, in an ironic manner: “Look, this might have been slick, but it’s rough! It deconstructs categories!” That’s not a deconstruction, it just re-emphasizes the old categories, like ‘ironic sexism’ does. A true deconstruction creates a world where the constructions ‘rough’ and ‘slick’ and the separation between them are entirely unlearned, were never there to begin with and are now difficult to imagine as valid—rough and slick, picture and frame have simply melted into the earth and not even their ghostly outlines remain. I can sense this process beginning to tug on my lizard brain in Colonial Patterns, caressing that place where the words, frames, and other constructions that would marshal my perception don’t exist yet.
Yeah, contemporary ears are too often stuck in what you might call The Greater Hauntological Paradigm, where they hear music not as something new and open, but simply as a scrunched-up or otherwise modulated (that is, framed) version of something that we knew came before it in the Glorious History of Pop Music. The problem is, the larger and more powerful your record collection and the lazier your ear, the easier it is to hear things framed that way and the more tempting it is to make music like that. It leads to the retromania optic (literally ‘retro man ear’—LMAO). So I don’t know whether it’s my ear or Blondes and Huerco’s synths and drum machines, but, no, it doesn’t seem like they’re rocketing away from older styles like some other producers are. If it were a century ago, I might want to call it the ‘decadent’ phase of a culture, a signal that the house-and/or-techno era is declining, simply falling back in on itself, and putting its past achievements in a frame, as rock before it has long been doing.
But it’s not a century ago and goddamn it, we’ve been coasting on post-modernism for at least thirty years now—and the idea of it spreading into house and techno only seems fresh and interesting for about 0.2 seconds. Blondes and Huerco S. don’t need to be casualties to the assumption that their music is simply a reaction, because every time I listen the music seems to get more abstract, not less. Clearly, they’re different from the retro house of Octo Octa, Pharaohs, Miracles Club, or Scuba—they don’t have that palpable sense of quotation marks around the music—and it is in that difference that the openness remains. It’s a place to start. Though the frame might be part of the picture, Blondes and Huerco S. make it less and less easy to see where the one ends and the other begins. ~
Blondes’ Swisher and Huerco S.’ Colonial Patterns are out now on RVNG and Software, respectively. Adam Harper is the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. You can read previous editions of Pattern Recognition here.