So: So
Thrill Jockey

No one can accuse Markus Popp of exploiting his 'name' on this collaborative venture with singer Eriko Toyoda, given that the cover displays it only once on the back side, with the cover adorned by hazily defined galleon images created by Japanese illustrator Katsumi Yokota. Information is kept to a bare minimum, as no song titles are listed or used for the recording's Japanese lyrics. Begun in 2002 as a reworking of a song cycle from Eriko's archives, So's sound differs from Popp's most recent Oval recordings, ovalprocess and ovalcommers, although the difference is less extreme than one might expect. The latter two evidence the most complete encapsulation of his signature style: hazy, dense, static-ridden, at times abrasive, swells of processed skipping sounds, inside of which beat the engaging melodies that are the human heart of Popp's machine. By comparison, So is more conventionally structured, its song-length pieces shorter (ranging from three to five minutes), and the overall sound generally more soothing and melodic. (Of course, such terms are used in relation to Popp's previous recordings in particular and the genre in general. By conventional listening standards, So would be considered a disconcertingly disorienting experience, permeated as it is by a relentless barrage of electronic treatments.) The trademarks of Oval's sound are still very much present (except for the absent skipping rhythms). Guitar is used extensively as a sound source, but beyond the natural and processed vocals and guitars, all other sounds assume an indeterminate nature, given the unremittingly electronic transformations that Popp applies to them. So is a collaboration, but Popp is definitely the dominant presence, as Toyoda's singing is more often than not absorbed into the Ovalesque maelstrom. The opening track is a good representation of the general approach. A largely untreated guitar figure appears, followed quickly by Popp's squeals, whistles, blasts, and static; a languid vocal melody occasionally peeks through the cracks in the dense sound. After this intro, a pause ensues followed by Toyoda's more audible vocal, although it too is soon drowned out by Popp's treatments. Similarly, on other tracks gently sung melodies are besieged by similar effects. Track three, for instance, sounds like the faint whisperings of an ancient Japanese song struggling to emerge from a radio amidst bombardments of interference and static.

Interestingly, both Popp and Pole are pursuing new directions at the same time, with the latter receiving a greater amount of media attention (courtesy of Mute's aggressive marketing strategy). While a stylistic impasse eventually led Pole to carefully redefine his approach, Popp foresaw Oval “turning into a software engine” and so decided a dramatic change was needed. In addition to forming the collaboration with Toyoda and recording So, the duo's purported performance set-up for a 2003 fall tour will consist of a relatively primitive 'So Fi-PA-system' comprised of 1950s broadband speakers and Triode amplifiers. However, Popp's change in direction is less pronounced than Pole's. On paper, one might expect the latest recording to be drastically different from his previous work, but, given how dominant his presence is on So and how much its sound is permeated by Popp's Oval style, it sounds like a natural evolution from ovalprocess and ovalcommers as opposed to a radical redefinition.

August 2003