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Oct232011

Alva Noto - Univrs

Raster Noton

You cannot shut your ears. This fundamental of life necessitates a human auditory system that, through a process of suppression and attenuation, filters the cacophony of the world into meaningful existence. The ear, like all senses, is a membrane that both separates and mediates between internal and external, a boundary that removes us from our environment so that we might make sense of it. Linguistic comprehension begins as a function of this relationship, a parsing of information from noise. Carsten Nicolai, the artist for whom the pseudonym Alva Noto represents just the audio arm of his output, has in the past stated an aim of exploring intersections between language and sound through data flow. Here he furthers this work.

The appearance of Univrs constitutes a de facto series continuation of the rhythmic work begun on Transform and Unitxt, operating within the same world of disjointed ground loops, papercut slices and data transmission. This latest album nonetheless occupies a richer territory, on the one hand migrating across ambient elements that will be familiar from Nicolai’s work elsewhere, while on the other simplifying and reinforcing the rhythmic thrust. The former, manifest most purely in “uni asymmetric tone”, testifies to a greater integration of tonal material than before. While nothing so crude as a melody or harmonic progression can be heard, bleeps and drones compete for space whilst we almost approach a two-note bassline on “uni pro”. The glitches still stop-start into existence but this time they conform to a more determined metric grid. Comparisons with Autechre might be as impossible to avoid as they are lazy; at times however, as on “uni deform” and “uni pro”, the album resembles nothing so much as the kind of straight-up UK electro that wouldn’t sound too out of place in a Scape One or Silicon Scally set.

This is testament, perhaps, to an urge to migrate the Alva Noto sound away from a primarily cerebral sphere in order to create a more robust and visceral encounter with the music. If this is the case then it is an insistent manifesto, one that seeks to locate the primitive origins of universal language by bypassing reason entirely. Univrs plugs straight into the body, animating flesh with electrical impulses that provoke involuntary muscular spasms. It is an approach that does not shrink from violence: not merely in the pneumatic beats that pound like jackhammers but also in the agitated flicker of “uni asymmetric III-IIII” whose rapid transients can, when listened to on headphones, cause inner ear pressure fluctuations that induce noticeable psycho-physical responses (disorientation, nausea, etc). It is a formidable intra-cranial assault.

These elements all combine in the epic ten minute “uni iso”, which overlays the signature who-keeps-unplugging-the-Geiger-counter sound with inharmonic drones that bookend the pitch space. Interrupted for a brief period halfway through by filmic sci fi tones, the beats then return in one of the most densely packed Alva Noto moments we have heard. In places it is almost too busy; our ears work hard to regain control of this panophonic onslaught, like travellers lost in the chaotic depths of a foreign country. In the only concession to orthodox linguistic production that occurs, former collaborator Anne-James Chaton returns on “uni acronym”, francophonically reciting not words or numbers but a long series of alphabetically organised three-letter acronyms. If this heady list that unites the disparate worlds of corporate brands and institutions (BBC, FBI, KFC, MGM), technology (SMS, MP3, DSP), airports (LAX, JFK), and drugs (GHB, LSD), indicates something of the claustrophobic nature of a kind of communication that cuts across all languages, then perhaps an album like Univrs represents an escape.

Toby Bennett

Reader Comments (1)

Really liking this album - one of the year's most enjoyable releases.

November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean Michel Genre

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