VA: SM4 Compilation

Before receiving it, I was especially eager to hear Spezialmaterial's latest compilation, given that the last time I'd heard anything by the label was in 2005 when a textura review of Softland's War Againstt Error appeared. It's also been a while since the label's last compilation release, as the third volume appeared all the way back in 2003. The latest collection turns out to be an encompassing release that spreads twenty-two selections across two CDs, and on presentation grounds, the release is certainly striking, seeing as how it comes in a limited silk-print edition produced using special fluorescent and metallic inks (500 copies). It's an eclectic collection for sure, and there's a clear-cut difference between the first and second discs: the first is dedicated to covering a broad range of stylistic bases, and the second hews closely to the electronica style with which the label's been associated since it started releasing music in 2000. There are even a few pieces that, while still nominally IDM, have rhythms that hit so hard the tracks could just as easily qualify as club bangers (Solotempo's “RingRing,” an incessantly burbling, chord-driven tech-house exercise, stands out as the second disc's major stormer, for example).

As stated, the first disc is a wide-ranging affair. If one were to take the opening piece as representative of the set (misguidedly, it would turn out), one would presume the set's stylistic focus to be eccentric pop of the kind someone like Felix Kubin might produce. In this case, it's Macuso Vikovsky's “Back from Central Asia,” an exotic vocal pop song that accompanies a gravelly vocal with spiky guitar playing and clarinet accents. Softland's (Christof Steinmann) “Heist” follows, a mercurial reverie of violins, acoustic bass, melodica, electronics, and skittering beats that's prototypical of the Softland style. Person's “Heart of Bass Part. 1” undergirds synthetic textures and the monotone flow of Ms. Why K. with early hip-hop-styled beats, while Gleiter's “Drumboy and Bassboy” likewise looks backwards in its raw, vocal-laced soul-funk. With its hollowed-out vocals and grime-encrusted electric guitars, Hard Coming Love's “Starship” sounds more like an unplugged The Jesus and Mary Chain than anything else. Armed with sparkling acoustic guitar playing, King of the Remote's easy-going “Xantesys” flirts with bucolic folktronica, while acoustic guitars also figure into the jittery, electrified boom-bap of Sissikontest's “Bosa” and Cooptrol's galloping “Back in Line” (replete with twanging voice samples). Only twice does disc one move into the kind of electronic territory one might expect from a Spezialmaterial release, with Monoblock B's (Silvio Tomasini) “Odysse” a hot-wired five minutes of electro-techno fire. The only other time is when its closing song, Drei Stuck Braun's “Blumen,” explores a cosmic forest of birds, nature rustlings, and warm analog synth melodies.

The second half kicks into electronic gear immediately with “Suffix,” a charging throwdown by Intricate duo Thomas Federspiel and Fabian Stübi, and then sticks close to its electronic roots for the other ten tracks, whether it be for heavy-hitters like Feldermelder's “King Whistle” or downtempo funky settings such as Staubsauger's “Kitiminnidak.” Long-time Spezialmaterial associates like Solotempo, HP. Stonji (Hans Platzgumer and E. Stonji), Solarium (Martin Wigger), and Traject (Gísli Þór Guðmundsson) appear during the second half, with their respective contributions consistent with the second disc's electronic focus. Very much in the Autechrian tradition of abstract beat-based electronica, Einoma's “LF” offers a predictably cold and perfectly engineered sampling of the Reykjavík-based group's icy music, while Tim Lorenz's Superdefekt track “8Beat” invigorates the tail-end of disc two with some punchy funk beat programming. “Metropolis” caps the release with a suitably micro-detailed taste of the Traject style documented on the 2004 album Strengir Hrynja.

Admittedly some experiments pay off more than others. Air Afrique's fittingly titled “Randompercussion” is a bit too uneventful to justify its seven-minute running time, though some recovery occurs during its second half. But missteps are few in number on this panoramic collection, which offers a generous set-list of tracks that both adhere to the Spezialmaterial tradition and venture boldly outside it.

September 2011