Alva Noto: Unitxt

Byetone: The Death of a Typographer

Ryoji Ikeda: Test Pattern

Recorded during Raster-Noton Japan tours 2006 and 2007, Carsten Nicolai's latest Alva Noto collection Unitxt derives its title from two sources: the Club Unit in Tokyo (the album's working title was Unit) and a text dimension that surfaces in a couple of cuts. Unitxt unspools in two-parts: up first are ten tracks that constitute the album proper, followed by three minutes of silence and then fifteen short pieces where Nicolai converts various non-audio files (including warhorses Word, Powerpoint, and Excel) into aural form. Unitxt's sound is both familiar and new, familiar in that the focus is on propulsive, heavily syncopated funk rhythm patterns (an approach explored as early as the 2000 and 2001 Mille Plateaux releases Prototypes and Transform) and new in its incorporation of voice treatments such as in “U_07,” where a portrait of Nicolai (developed in collaboration with poet Anne-James Chaton) is presented in the form of Chaton's rapid-fire monotone enumeration of text and numbers associated with Nicolai's personal invoices, business cards, and credit card info (a theme re-visited in “U_08-1” where Chaton recites numbers associated with the Golden Ratio). In contrast to the aforementioned Mille Plateaux releases, Unitxt's sound is considerably grimier, as if acid has seeped into the machinery, spread like a virus, and mangled the output. The “clean” sine tones and interlocking rhythm patterns of yore remain but a pronounced noise dimension is continually present to offset their purity. Tracks like “U_06” and “U_09-1-2” are veritable orgies of hammering bass patterns, high-pitched tones, and rippling tears and smears while “U_03” coats its machine-generated throb with fusillades of grinding noise. Though a conventionally melodic dimension is all but absent from Unitxt, it's nevertheless compelling to monitor the endless permutations Nicolai resourcefully spins from a minimum of means. Certainly the material's kinetic thrust and feral attack helps explain why his music remains transfixing in the absence of melody. The even more uncompromising shorter pieces bombard the listener with showers of data-based noise that range from four-second fragments to minute-long splinters of grinding splatter. Listeners already in possession of Nicolai's recordings will still find Unitxt a rewarding addition to the Alva Noto catalogue; for neophytes, it's a great starting point. Unitxt at the very least offers a thoroughly detailed portrait of the 2008 Alva Noto model.

With Test Pattern (the second release in his Datamatics project), Ryoji Ikeda pushes purity to its logical limit while also offering a slightly different variation on the idea explored by Nicolai on his release's second part. Ikeda first converts multiple forms of data (text, sound, photos, movies) into barcode and binary patterns and then changes that into digital sound. Like Nicolai, Ikeda works with a rhythm-centered mix of bass pulses, wipes, and sine tones, all of which flicker at light speed throughout Test Pattern. Their two albums are definitely kindred spirits, though there are obviously differences with Nicolai's midtempo funk workouts unlike Ikeda's rapid-fire skitter and flutter. In contrast to what one might expect, Test Pattern has a sometimes calming effect on the listener, specifically when a given track stays within a circumscribed volume range. Popping micro-tone patterns dance through “Test Pattern #0110” at an almost subliminal level and bass tones do the same during “Test Pattern #0111.” But don't get the wrong impression, however: Test Pattern isn't always an exercise in easy listening as some of the more aggressive pieces prove, such as the longest track, “Test Pattern #1111,” which grows into a pummeling cyclone during its seven-minute duration. Be forewarned: the CD comes with an advisory note that “(h)igh volume listening of the last track may cause damage to equipment and eardrums” so exercise caution if you're listening on headphones; the track's frequencies are truly needle-sharp and, at full volume, are painful. Ultimately the severely reduced character of the release argues somewhat against it, or perhaps it's simply that sixty-seven minutes of it is about twenty more than is necessary. Test Pattern may be “purer” than Unitxt but it's of secondary interest, comparatively speaking.

Frankly, I hadn't expected Byetone's Death Of A Typographer to be the most satisfying of the three releases but that turns out to be the case. That's especially surprising when one considers that Raster-Noton co-founder Olaf Bender has heretofore operated primarily as the graphic design force responsible for the Chemnitz-based label's visual identity (as well as functioning as one-third of Signal alongside Nicolai and Frank Bretschneider). Nevertheless, Bender proves himself a more than capable practitioner of the Raster-Noton aesthetic while also allowing more accessible song structures and melodic components to enter the picture. The material also shows him to be someone unafraid to identify himself as a music-maker clearly indebted to Kraftwerk as many of Byetone's tracks traffic in beat patterns strongly reminiscent of the Düsseldorf legends. Field recording elements (outdoor noises, footsteps) introduce the recording in the minute-long “Into Bios (Intro),” suggestive of someone entering a building just in time to hear the pulsating “Plastic Star (Session)” lunge into position. With its whirring, metronomic rhythm track offset by skittish off-beat punctuations, the track's mobile funk groove can't help but bring Kraftwerk to mind, and a similar approach infuses “Straight” albeit in more restrained manner. “Capture This (Part I)” turns the lights down for a crepuscular, three-minute drone before part two re-introduces rhythmic pulsations, willowy synth atmospherics, and myriad glitch-inflected punctuations. Unlike the other two releases, Byetone's complements its rhythm dimension with a strongly melodic one too, making Death Of A Typographer a comparatively more conventional recording but also a more satisfying one on purely listening grounds. At forty-three minutes, the recording is also admirably lean with little noticeable excess to speak of. When the funereal “Heart” reaches its end, it feels as if the album's gone by too quickly, an impression not left by the other two.

December 2008