Softland: One is a Very Small Crowd

The tasteful cover design of this Softland (Christof Steinmann) release suggests that the Spezialmaterial label wishes to align itself with its Morr Music and City Centre Offices brethren. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the recent SM03—A Spezialmaterial Compilation, as it features tracks by Spezialmaterial artists and then includes the same set of songs re-interpreted by established names like Skanfrom, Plaid, and Phonem, all of whom, in spite of their obvious stylistic differences, fall within the general category of melodic IDM electronica. And yet those familiar with the comp will also know that Softland's contribution “Seismo” was rather anomalous in comparison to the other pieces; its exotic arrangement of piano, bass, Moroccan flute, and percussion certainly distinguished it from the other more conventional electronic pieces. Which brings us back to Softland's equally unusual solo outing One is a Very Small Crowd. Closely inspecting its cover, one discovers that the precise number of samples associated with each of its nine pieces is identified, such that “Honda,” for example, is purported to have 14,098,784 samples. Either Steinmann has a very warped sense of humour, or perhaps, judging by the excessive density of many tracks, the exaggerated number is meant to be taken (somewhat) seriously.

The recording immediately establishes a strong and original impression at the outset with “Duden.” Following an ominous intro of dark synths and block percussion—offset by a sample of a woman's laughter—the piece grows more and more dense until it achieves symphonic proportions. Judging by this first piece, Steinmann is less concerned with grooves per se and is more focused upon constructing sophisticated arrangements for complex fully-developed compositional structures. The impression is confirmed with the next song “‘Sevkens” which is even more idiosyncratic. As ornate classical lines of multi-layered harpsichords build to a massive pitch, the interweaving melodies become increasingly dissonant until the piece less evokes a stately court harpsichordist and more a deranged hermit concocting some nightmarish ode in some remote, abandoned castle. The mood continues with ‘Loipe' whose heavily struck piano chords sound a dark melody in combination with insistent electronic beats and banks of majestic synths. Similarly, the tearing sounds on “Approach” coalesce into an aggressive beat while a glockenspiel faintly voices a simple melody. Dissonance reigns again, as squealing, distorted synths form a nightmarish cloud that almost consumes everything around it.

By this point, the weak of heart knows that One is a Very Small Crowd is hardly an exercise in easy listening. Melodies are generally ominous and menacing, and many tracks willfully induce moods of disquiet and unease—to an unpleasant degree in some cases. “Stell,” for example, features loud layers of rapid synth patterns that are ultimately overbearing; by the song's end, the squealing synths seem to resound like aural dental drills. Similarly, while “Majken” starts promisingly with pulsing percussion accents littered by gauzy synth tones, it suddenly introduces echoing synths that strafe the stratosphere. At one point, the brew builds to a boil that threatens to explode. With its intricate melody lines and percussive blasts, “Chanel” is the track most likely to induce headaches, and also evidences a weakness of other tracks too, namely an absence of space. There is so much detail and so little breathing room that the final impression is one of suffocation.

So why recommend One is a Very Small Crowd if it's such uneasy listening? Because at the very least (unlike so many electronic artists), Steinmann is charting his own singular path by fashioning a sound that suggests kinship with fellow artists but remains uniquely his own, if a sound too dense in general and at times overwhelmingly so. A strong classical dimension is invoked here, but one given a bizarre twist by being rendered so ominous and harsh. Given the method of its construction, it makes sense that it should be classified as an electronic recording but, musically, it veers off into far more unusual and uncharted zones.

November 2003