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Thursday
Feb212013

TM404

Kontra Musik

Andreas Tilliander has made an album of tracks exclusively using classic Roland x0x machines, recorded in one take, with no edits. Why has he done this? ‘The idea was to make stripped down music’ he says. Stripped, that is, of the excesses of production: no complex, overburdened arrangements, no pretensions to inconceivable magnitude or obsessive-compulsive precision, no densely wrought stuff, just one man, his machines, and his music. There are further restrictions. The 101, 505 and 909 are excluded from the equation, and so too is the 303’s triangle soundwave, cutting in half its timbral possibilities. At this point, with semi-arbitrary sets of rules aimed at purifying the experience of making and hearing authentic electronic music, it all becomes a bit Dogme 95. Alternatively (or not, depending on your view of von Trier and his ilk), it starts to sound a bit gimmicky – ‘a unique way of operating within today’s electronic music’, gushes the press release, doing little to distantiate the album’s conceptual sincerity from its attendant marketing obligations.

But, pleasingly, it’s not really either. Consequently, you have to listen to the album in its full context of text, sound and image, reading the full ‘sonic fiction’, to paraphrase Kodwo Eshun. The track titles spell out the participants of the faithful Roland army (the full list includes MC202 and TB303 synths, TR606, 707, and 808 drum machines, and an array of reverb units) in various combinations bringing the technology – and the gearlust – to the fore. ‘TM404’ – a new mantle chosen by Tilliander for this outing, as well as the title of the disc – is, I’m guessing, a one-off. Sound, technology, and musician collapse into each other: this is less an album than a project, and one which you can watch the artist’s slender hands performing in HD on YouTube, if that’s your fetish.

The 404 is the only Roland machine in the x0x sequence that was never made, supposedly because of the company’s superstition over the homophonic resonance between the sino-Japanese word for ‘death’ and the number four (where this tetraphobic fable leaves the SP-404 sampler seems to remain a mystery…) So the album is an homage – but also a completion, the filling of an absence, a return of the repressed. Indeed, if acid has been confronted by its own mortality then it has also taken on a strange neurotic afterlife. Whether it’s archivalist-tinged retro-house (Miracles Club, Azari & III) or experimental deconstructions (Haswell, Hecker), golden-age nostalgia or irreverent desecration, in recent years the use of these boxes has been unavoidably backward looking, anchored to a previous generation.

But if a younger crowd anxious for a sound to call its own is keen to bemoan this net-saturated artistic atemporality then Tilliander, while he doesn’t yet achieve it, is keen to distance himself from the past too. He loves the old acid trax, he says, but his own are ‘too low-key to work on the dance floors’ – this is ‘somnolent acid’. This was a seam mined last year, you will remember, on the Last Step Sleep album; but whereas that riffed on liminality as creative tool, TM404 is plunged more fully into the world of dreams.  Aesthetically evocative of Plastikman and Basic Channel – and if the references are lazy then they are also sadly unavoidable – the album largely swaps rhythmic propulsion for pulsation and buries itself in mists of reverberation and ground noise, controlled and amplified by multiple relays between devices and mixing desk. ‘202 202 303 303 606’, with its insistent bassline and scattered toms is about as jacking as it gets, but even that ends up swallowed beneath an undulating squarewave glisten. At times the haze recedes revealing a quiet melodic sensibility that recalls Benge (an artist with whom Tilliander shares an affection for analogue instruments and processual composition techniques) particularly on ‘202 303 303 303 808’.

The self-imposed restrictions then are not so strange and not so abstract: the lineage of electronic music is bound up (in frustratingly material terms) with the technical limitations of hardware; the specifics of circuitry, valves, and interfaces that act on the creative process just as much as humans act on them. It’s this mutually-embedded influence that I think Tilliander is trying to evoke. Sonically, even with the addition of online video performances, I’m not convinced that the live aspect adds a huge amount to the listener’s experience. The textural and rhythmic interplay (on, for example, ‘303 303 303 303 707 808’) creates some genuinely engaging moments, no doubt spontaneously arrived at – but at other times I wish it were more explicitly gestural, and overall there is little that couldn’t have withstood some further arrangement. But that would have injured the conceptual integrity of the project as a whole – and this is where TM404 is most successful, confronting the libidinal impulse of these lifeless and outmoded machines, and inviting unsentimental reflection on times that are perhaps lost.

Toby Bennett

 

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