Marsen Jules: Beautyfear

Lufth: Distanz und Nähe

Oktaf Records brings us two fine new collections by German electronic producers, the first from Martin Juhls under his long-standing Marsen Jules moniker (CCO, 12k, Kompakt) and the second a debut outing from Joerg Schuster (aka Digitalverein and Sensual Physics) under the Lufth guise.

Based on the evidence at hand, it appears that the Marsen Jules style has undergone some degree of evolution since its inception. There was a time when a typical Marsen Jules track relied heavily on loops that Juhls would repeat over and over—too much so for some—in order for his music to achieve an hypnotic effect. Beautyfear, by contrast, might rely on loops and samples, but in place of clockwork repetition we find a more organic handling of compositional form. It's a little bit like Erik Madigan Heck's cover image in that regard: at first glance it appears to be a Rorschach, and thus predictable in its formal symmetricality, but a closer look reveals that the image deviates from such predictability in subtle ways.

The fifty-three-minute set features twelve tracks (simply titled with Roman Numerals) that Jules created during a week's stay at a theatre workspace in Lisbon. They're instrumental soundscapes that, being abstract in nature and bereft of conventional titles, naturally allow the listener to project upon them any number of meanings and interpretations. Jules' beatless settings, which one might also characterize as neo-classical ambient meditations, are brooding mini-symphonies flush with synth tones, surging strings, and other orchestral textures. At times (“IV,” “IX,” and “X,” for example), the material is so blurry and vaporous in character, it invites comparison to Wolfgang Voigt's Gas. That aforementioned brooding quality is also in places so pronounced (such as during the convulsive “VI”) that Beautyfear in those moments assumes a morose industrial-ambient character. For the most part, however, the album's material exudes a becalmed peacefulness that strengthens its soothing effect on the listener (e.g., the glassy reverie “VIII”). Consistent with the album's somewhat unpredictable character, Jules changes things up as it enters its final laps by animating “XI” with a throbbing rhythm that's close in spirit to, wouldn't you know it, techno.

Without wishing to discredit Jules' outing, it's Schuster's Lufth album, whose nine tracks he produced over the past decade, that provides the bigger surprise of the two. It's pitched as a dub-electronica affair, and while that's not wholly inaccurate, the description does tend to shortchange the fifty-six-minute collection. Admittedly the forlorn opening piece, “Democracy is Dead Like Printed Matter,” possesses all of the characteristics associated with the dub-electronica genre, specifically a deep, multi-dimensional production style within which crackle, static, beats, and chords swirl within a perpetual haze. But other tracks deviate from the style in such a way that they begin to situate themselves more naturally within a glitch-electronica genre that has more in common with Alva Noto than Deepchord.

But here's the difference: whereas some glitch-electronica producers think that presenting a sound array of heavy glitch-like design will prove sufficiently interesting, Schuster goes further by arranging and sequencing his elements until they collectively cohere into—even if at times by allusion—a formal melody-based composition. And though at times it can appear as if only the skeleton of a composition is presented, there's enough on hand for the listener to connect the dots between the elements and bring the piece into structural focus. Good examples of the style are “Nicht ohne Dich” (Not Without You) and “Ebbe und Flut” (Ebb and Flow), wherein melodic fragments, guitar flickers, and glitchy stabs work together to create the tracks' percolating beats and fluttering melodies. Schuster also shows himself to be a deft hand at evoking strong emotion through electronic means, as shown by the mournful title track and slow-motion dreamscape “Rotes Dortmund.” Distanz und Nähe thus proves to be a more-than-usual engrossing listen, and the listener comes away impressed by the artful way Schuster assembles a given track's parts to create, to some degree by implication only, the whole.

April 2014