[1 May 2009]
When Echospace’s The Coldest Season cracked Stylus Magazine‘s top 50 albums of 2007, I stared at it for a cold minute, blinked hard eight times, rubbed my eyes and checked again. Say what? It was a fantastic record that deserved the honor, but music that combines open dubspace with the subzero sonics of Sturm or Hallucinator isn’t the type of thing that normally occupies valuable list space. What’s more, it predated the American indie community’s fascination with minimal dub techno by about a year. My little brain couldn’t fathom how something so unostentatious managed to woo enough editors at one of the world’s most tastemaking publications, but there it was, right between Caribou and !!!.
Their sudden acclaim allowed them to become a kind of experimental electronic Wu-Tang Clan, as the two members of Echospace diverged into equally recognized solo careers. Rod Modell shot off in a half-dozen directions for Incense and Black Light (2008), from the effulgent electro of labels like Clear and Ubiquity to off-putting noise. By contrast, Stephen Hitchell’s new Intrusion project mostly just makes him sound more like himself. If he had a boss, the memo would’ve read, “Whatever you do, don’t ruffle any feathers on this one.” But Hitchell doesn’t have a boss, so we would have to assume that his retreat into more conservative confines was something of a conscious decision.
If that’s true, then thankfully his decision wasn’t stupidly self-indulgent, like a hard rock band embarking on a jazz odyssey after 20 years of giving it to the Man. The sound is mindful and attractive, and very much in line with what young artists inspired by Basic Channel are doing these days. As with Echospace, the touchstone isn’t so much Basic Channel proper as it is the ambient dub that Moritz von Oswald and Marcus Ernestus created as Rhythm & Sound. The distinction is crucial: One outfit treated dub as a reference point to be screwed with, the other treated dub as a movement to be respected. And Hitchell, too, is true to the source. For The Seduction of Silence, think Scientist’s Heavyweight Dub Champion zoomed 200 years into the future, or King Tubby submerged beneath a ton of gloss. You’d better believe Hitchell makes the shape of a curvaceous lady with his hands when the dub classics come up in conversation.
If The Coldest Season was ice, The Seduction of Silence is water, though hardly the runoff that The Coldest Season left behind. The record resides in a definite tropical locale, with a humid, aquatic stasis that evokes the afterglow of a Caribbean beach party in the morning’s early hours. Tidepools of monochromatic melody gently sidle up to a vaporous covering of crackle and hiss, consisting of muted rainstick effects and a more polite version of Stefan Betke’s broken pole filter. A ripple here, a ripple there. Only the thumps and echoing clicks of the rhythm keep the music from sitting placidly still. So smooth and peaceful is this stuff that it even threatens to become the genre that sends the under-40 demographic running for the hills: new age. But at least Hitchell seems to know that, which helps a little. The intro to “Montego Bay” is all fluttery rhythmic effects and the faux-ominous ambience that’s meant to simulate a rainforest for people who’ve never been to one. But after a minute and change, Hitchell throws in his first dub keyboards and effectively turns music we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole into the music we’ve been salivating over for the past two years. “Gotcha.”
Most of Seduction‘s constituent parts toe that precarious line between being too cool and not cool enough: beats, drones, sound effects, you name it. Hitchell runs into a bit of trouble when it comes to vocals, an exemplar of this borderline-issue. For “Little Angel” and “Angel Version”, he’s employed one Paul St. Hilaire, a reggae veteran who set up shop in Berlin partly to work with none other than Rhythm & Sound. Hilaire’s presence on The Seduction of Silence gives the record a jolt of legitimacy, but as for his actual vocal contribution… I don’t know, man. His natural Jamaican inflection works well, as does the gravelly quality of his vowels, but the manner in which his sung melody undulates too complementarily with the music is itself a bit new agey. Then I think of how Rhythm & Sound assembled a cast of reggae greats for See Mi Yah in 2005 (on which St. Hilaire appeared, incidentally), and how their more traditional style would have disrupted Seduction‘s mellow. This record thirsts for vocalists when it veers a little too close to nothingness, but as for what type of vocalizing, I’m not exactly sure. Consider this an amicable invitation for Hitchell to keep trying.
For now, The Seduction of Silence is a comfortable enough oceanic space for serious decompression. In fact, its dual habitation in the worlds of new age and experimental techno means that the relaxation experience it provides is versatile. It strikes me as the sort of record teens can get stoned to while their dads play it on the stereo during post-workday meditation. “Immersion” would have been a more fitting name for the project. That Seduction is long, samey, and maybe a bit too in love with itself can take some satisfaction out of listening to it if we pay too much attention. But deep listening and attentive listening aren’t the same concept, and Hitchell seems to have constructed his baby to be conducive to the former, not the latter. One imagines that it’s a particular type of silence Hitchell finds seductive: the soundlessness of being away from wherever we usually are—underwater, up in the sky, inside our own headspace—when the superfluous elements drop out of audition just enough to draw us into the moment.