Softland: War Against Error

Though Softland's War Againstt Error doesn't defy description, it does defy categorization. As eccentric, eclectic, and densely packed as Zürich-based Christof Steinmann's 2003 debut One Is A Very Small Crowd, the new work includes twenty-two exercises in aural cubism (nine of them fragmentary vignettes with seven titled using UTM coordinates) written between 1997 and 2005, very few of which conform to conventional stylistic categories. These playful, at times bewildering settings—by turns lo-fi pop, space-age jazz-techno, labyrinthine electronica—feature melodies and instruments that constantly spiral into conflicting directions, making for disorienting listening. In addition to field recordings which imbue the material (especially the interludes) with a definite sense of place (car door slams, crickets, crowd noise, and phone rings intermittently surface) Steinmann combines acoustic instruments (the double bass especially prominent) with bold electronics. The work as a whole intercuts fleeting vignettes with extended scenes in montage-like form, an openly experimental approach to composition that somehow avoids lapsing into incoherence; strangely, a melancholy ambiance often emerges despite the seemingly dissonant combinations of prickly timbres (e.g., the unconventional coupling of lamb bleating, tinkling glasses, and swooping glissandi in “Heute”).

Techno may be a vaguely discernible touchstone but the music extends so far beyond the genre the recording ultimately inhabits an alien universe all its own. In “Huch,” for example, the 4/4 techno is so straightforwardly presented the effect is jarring, though predictably Steinmann gives the material a bizarre twist by adding backwards vocal effects, soloing (and bowed) acoustic bass, and recorder flutter. Likewise, “All the Nows We've Had” features an underlying rhythm that could almost be called techno, if the bass drum accents didn't keep re-positioning themselves. The activity level in a single song can be remarkable, a case in point “Please Confirm the World” which opens with a weave of whistling, recorder, and—new for Softland—soft male vocal utterances, the sonic array gradually growing into a meandering mass that retains an elegiac feel despite its conflicting elements; as the piece draws to an end, an acoustic bass solos loudly atop a field of vocal syllables before being buried under a dominating smear of glitch. Unlike much of the material, the noisy synth-pop waltz “Mlle.,” augmented by Steinmann's gentle voice protestations of amour (“Je t'aime”), flirts closest with conventionality. Even song titles—“Llum,” “Immer beides.”—are strange. Is War Againstt Error odd? Yes. Unusual? Definitely. Yet also captivating, engrossing, and unique.

September 2005