Wires Under Tension: Replicant
Re-applying Conlon Nancarrow's player piano approach to contemporary electronic music production seems like such a natural and obvious idea, the only surprise is that somebody didn't do it earlier. Leave it to the innovative Christopher Tignor (the leader of Slow Six and currently a software engineer for Google) to re-animate the concept in Replicant, his latest Wires Under Tension collaboration with master percussionist Theo Metz. As those familiar with Nancarrow will recall, the composer turned his attention to the player piano as an instrument able to realize works that challenged or even exceeded the physical capabilities of the human musician—an approach Tignor replicates by using a number of custom-built software instruments, samples, and seven live loopers. Taking its inspiration from Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and Ridley Scott's film adaptation Blade Runner, Replicant, whose concept clearly draws upon the original materials' pre-occupation with the tension between the human and non-human, blurs the boundaries between programming and live performance to such a degree they become indistinguishable.
Though the album starts on a restrained note when a ruminative intro to “Like Waves We Will Keep Coming On” establishes a melancholy mood, the calm is banished two minutes into the piece when a hyperspeed keyboard figure lunges forth accompanied by Metz's tribal patterns. The music subsequently escalates in volume and mass, with the keyboard and percussion textures thickening and Tignor's signature violin playing amplifying the collective blaze even more. “Shoot Between Heartbeat” dispenses with quietude altogether by bolting from the gate with a full-bore attack, the hammering drumbeat a ground for an impenetrably dense mass of keyboards and percussion. The title cut sees harpsichord-like keyboard figures racing alongside an equally frenetic and punchy, bass-heavy groove. Here and elsewhere, the density level is such that one strains to extricate Tignor's violin from the mix, so swallowed is it by the surround, and consequently those moments where it's most clearly audible (such as during “Crystal Beaches”) often prove to be the album's most satisfying. The connecting tracks “Coded Lanuage For” and “Landscape Architecture” and the closing “Bronx Science” find Tignor and Metz digging into deep funk grooves with all the ferocity the duo brings to the album as a whole. The heaviest moments in these tracks make clear that the word polite isn't a part of Wires Under Tension's dictionary.If there's a weakness to Replicant, it's that the intensity rarely if ever lets up, and consequently the contrast that a quieter track or two would bring is missing. When the penultimate piece, “The Light Behind Your Light Is Changing,” slows the tempo to something less than a frenzy, it feels like a welcome relief coming as it does after so much fury. In general, Tignor and Metz pitch the material at a sometimes exhaustingly explosive level, which at the very least ensures that no one'll nod off while the tumultuous tunes are playing. Replicant is, in short, anything but wallflower music.