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Dino Spiluttini and Nils Quak: Modular Anxiety
Umor Rex Records

This superb split release from Umor Rex Records is ambiguously titled: does Modular Anxiety refer to trepidation Dino Spiluttini and Nils Quak felt working with their gear (Quak's was written entirely on a modular synthesizer), or does it allude to the anxiety that the listener is supposed to experience while listening to the recording's ten settings? Based on the evidence at hand, the first interpretation would hardly seem to be the case, given the degree of confidence exemplified by the two producers in their handling of their respective tools. And frankly the second meaning doesn't hold up terribly well either, as the material is generally less conducive to anxiety than simply captivation (though admittedly Quak's nightmarish “Tropic Spirals” does stoke a turbulent snarl for the full measure of its seven minutes). In that regard, a better title for the album might have been Modular Captivity, given how much the listener is captivated by the album content from beginning to end.

The work contributed by the two artists engage in subtly different ways: Spiluttini's proves arresting for the fresh compositional vision instantiated by his six tracks, whereas Quak's proves memorable for the dynamic sound textures he coaxes from the synthesizer. Highlighting differences slightly muddies the waters, so to speak, because Spiluttini's sound design is memorable, too, while Quak's compositional side is also well-served by his four pieces. There are dramatic differences between the album's sides, but not in any way that's displeasing, especially when there are enough overlaps between the creators' contributions to help make the release feel cohesive.

Spiluttini grabs the listener's attention right away by strafing his dramatic opening piece, “Anxiety,” with a hammering ostinato whose staccato rat-a-tat suggests Modular Anxiety will be anything but a run-of-the-mill ambient-drone affair. The subsequent settings prove to be as interesting, especially when Spiluttini catches the listener off guard with unexpected twists and sudden irruptions—though he's also not averse to slowing things down for a understated meditation like “Downer,” too. Field recordings and processed treatments of acoustic instruments (such as guitar and piano) seem to surface, though one can never be too sure these days about what exact source materials have been used.

Background pitter-patter in Quak's “Octagonal Journey” draws a connecting line from it to Spiluttini's “Anxiety,” but generally speaking the two travel separate if parallel paths. Of the four pieces he contributes to the release, “Octagonal Journey” shows Quak at his most explorative, sound-wise, with melodica-like accents emerging in the piece alongside static pops and tones of wildly varying pitch and timbre. At album's end, “Duet For Modular Brass” twists and turns like some drunken sailor trying to find his way home. Adding to the release's appeal, which Umor Rex has made available in an edition of 300 vinyl copies (the first 170 on gold, no less), is that it clocks in at a cozy forty-one minutes, which—shades of Goldilocks and the Three Bears—feels just right: not too short, but not too long either.

February 2014