Monolake: Silence
Imbalance Computer Music

Monolake: Atlas / Titan
Imbalance Computer Music

Monolake: Atlas T++ Remix
Imbalance Computer Music

It's interesting that even with all of the radical advancements in technology that have developed in tandem with the evolution of Robert Henke's Monolake project, the group's basic sound in certain respects has remained in place since its inception. Of course the very sound of the Monolake material has grown exponentially in refinement, and there's no question that Henke's production skills have likewise grown apace. But in another sense Silence feels like the latest stage in a continuum which has seen each installment manifest recurring characteristics: a fundamental, driving rhythm-based attack, for one, and a distinctive compositional conception that finds a given track not so much meandering as purposefully carving out a path through open-ended terrain. Yes, there are melodic elements but rarely are they as simple as repeating refrains; instead, said elements assert themselves as tendrils extending through a given piece in a manner that at first seems unpredictable yet in hindsight begins to appear eminently logical. No matter the software and hardware used, Henke's Monolake material always bears the indelible signature of its creator, and for this reason remains unique. That's the major reason why, incidentally, Henke has flourished: while other producers quickly exhaust the potential of their conceptions, Henke's continues to expand and develop. In short, the man's an artist, not an artisan, someone whose artistic sensibility works symbiotically with his ever-evolving skill-set.

Attending to the clarity of the production design offers ample pleasure all by itself, and one comes away with renewed appreciation for Henke's superior powers of sound design (Silence was composed, edited, and mixed entirely in Ableton Live, the software for which Henke was one of the original developers). Even more than its precursors, Silence sounds expansive, richer, and ultra-detailed. Part of that richness is attributable to the source material itself, which is not only software-generated (Operator, Tension, Analog, MAXMSP / MaxForLive) but derived from a wealth of field recordings (“airport announcements, hammering on metal plates …, dripping water at the Botanical Garden Florence, air condition systems and turbines in Las Vegas, Frankfurt and Tokyo, walking on rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, wind from the Grand Canyon, …). As always with Henke's work, the sound quality is magnificent. When a muffled metallic element ricochets throughout “Avalanche,” it's impossible to say what exactly it is or from where it originated but ultimately in the Monolake production universe such concerns become moot.

That the soft dribble of water is the album's first sound immediately signifies that Silence will be a unique Monolake listen. Quickly, however, “Watching Clouds” shows signs of being a Monolake album—the menacing undercurrent introduced by the muffled rhythm, the onset and retreat of chilly tones—while at the same time distancing itself from the template in the layering of textures, such as a thrum that sounds like amplified hail striking a windowpane. Trademark elements begin to emerge in the second piece, “Infinite Snow”—a clockwork ticking percussion pattern that accompanies a slow and skeletal funk pulse, a blurry bass motif—alongside field elements (the crunch of footsteps) and the arresting dazzle of a dulcimer-like lead voice that imbues the track with an Eastern aura. That exotic feel rersurfaces during “Internal Clock” where Henke smears similar dazzling flourishes across a classic Monolake rhythm base as a plenitude of percussive accents punctuates the stark pulse. Also ear-catching, “Shutdown” juxtaposes the cold, metallic thrust of the rhythm attack with the naturalistic wail of a flute. Some tracks align themselves closely to the Monolake sound of Cinemascope and Gravity. During “Null Pointer,” intermittent interjections of a robotic voiceover appear alongside an unpredictable stream of percussive strikes and patterns; “Far Red” digs into funk from the outset with the kind of metallic groove and clickety hi-hat pattern that's likewise threaded itself through previously issued Monolake tracks.

Exactly how malleable the Monolake concept is and how amenable it is to shape-shifting is evidenced by hearing it alongside the material that Henke released prior to Silence, the twelve-inch release Atlas and the subsequent twelve-inch Atlas remix by T++ (Torsten Proefrock, credited as a formal Monolake member on the Polygon Cities release). They're both remarkable in their own way, yet hardly anticipate Silence (except for one sonic detail).

“Atlas” (which one can now hear as a forerunner of Silence's “Shutdown”) merges Monolake signatures—uptempo beat thrust, clouds of sub-bass, and stormy whooshes—with the piercing howl of a flute. With the rhythm attack an exercise in metallic funk design, the track becomes a remarkable eight-minute ride that transcends genre categories, even if elements of techno and funk dominate. The sleek contours and uptempo techno thrust of “Titan” are arrested in each bar by a rhythm hiccup and the relentless stab of dubby chords. Henke surreptitiously loosens the reins midway through to let the elements bleed into one another and eventually assume a more fluid and liquid form.

On the Atlas T++ Remix release, Torsten Proefrock's “Atlas T++ Remix” swoops in like a swarm of hornets, setting the stage for nine minutes of swinging throb and billowing textures. The roiling base remains pretty much in place throughout (a brief dropout occurs halfway through), all the better for the contorting ebb and flow of textures to unfurl as they do. By grounding it so solidly in its rhythm foundation, Proefrock tames Henke's “Atlas” to some degree but not displeasingly. The B-side's “T++ Test#10Seed_Bit” (“based on nothing”) fuses dubstep throb and techno locomotion into a future-house hybrid. For nearly eight minutes, dubstep's elastic snap merges with a rapid shuffle and textural strafings and exhalations emblematic of Monolake, with Proefrock spiritedly slowing the tempo a couple of times and twisting the beat inside out before jumpstarting it back into formation.

In all three releases, it's possible to hear traces of dubstep, techno, and dub in Henke's music (there's some hint of dubstep—albeit an extremely supercharged variant of it—in the urgent rhythmic thrust of “Avalanche,” for example, and techno's ghost haunts “Reconnect,” though again Henke gives the genre a prototypical mutant spin), but labeling any one track as such would be to grossly oversimplify matters. Each of the tracks alchemizes any and all disparate influences into experiences that are finally more Monolake than anything else. It's interesting to note that no matter how different a given recording may be when compared to another, each one ultimately sounds like nothing else but Monolake.

March 2010