A close kin to Actress’s Splazsh, The Traveller, Berlin producer René Pawlowitz’s second full-length under his Shed alias, is an album designed for discussion. Like Splazsh, the album seems to be about techno without actually indulging in its formal aspects. There are allusions to past sounds in the names of tracks (“Mayday”, “44A (Hardwax Forever)”, “Hello Bleep!”), despite the fact that these tracks bear little trace of those referents. The Traveller also shares Splazsh‘s mystification, a cryptic quality wherein it’s hard to tell whether these were well-laid plans of genre subversion or accidents deemed efficient and sufficient enough. Whether Pawlowitz and Actress’s Darren Cunningham work with a disregard for the rules or simply an unwillingness to be bothered with them remains a topic for debate. Is self-sabotage a means of standing out in the sea of anonymity that is our current musical landscape? Or is this truly “margins music”, whose edge is attained by allowing perception make the final determination of insipidity or genius?
However, arguments about intention aside, it’s the final sonic product itself that stands as the testament to what an album accomplishes, although this may be a misleading word. Here on The Traveller, nothing feels very accomplished. There’s an air of incompleteness lurking around these tracks, many of which are defined more by absence than presence, particularly the absence of dance beats. Given the album title, one might ascertain that these are songs for travel—landcruising, not clubhopping—particularly since many of the rhythms that do show up on cuts like “Atmo-Action” and “44A (Hardwax Forever)” resemble the rotations of railways, trains, and subway cars bringing the listeners to each variegated destination. “Keep Time”, meanwhile, is primarily a breakbeat that sounds like it was recorded in an underground compression chamber. It’s not metronomic per se, but the cut does little else other than its namesake.
“The Bot” starts with warm, blunted, murky echoes that could have been leftovers from the Deepchord stash. They continue to pop up amidst a backdrop of blankness, color daubs on a white page, the tempo concealed by inertia. It’s like ambient without ambient. Sudden, violent, jolting drum fills burst into the mix as if the ‘bot drummer is looking for its cue to start. This continues for about three minutes until a simple conventional beat comes in, though little else happens as the track winds down and listeners scratch their heads. Another curiosity is “Mayday”, wherein sluggish processed percussion gives way to the airy plink of David Sylvian-style synths, which then maneuver towards an odd-timed break. Despite the occasional allure of the sublime synths, the song feels like three pieces snapped together.
There are a lot of ebullient, ethereal, pretty moments on the album. The blissful 48 seconds of “Can’t Feel It” and the lush patterns of “Leave Things”, which tap dance up and down harmonic scales amidst jungle breaks, spring to mind. So, too, do the textural intro “STP2”—which more than likely stands for Shedding the Past 2, either a sincere sequel to the first album or another example of taking the piss—and the wintery glow of “Hello Bleep!”, which is like a more jittery Casino Versus Japan.
However, short stories such as these require structure. Even the most experimental narratives respond to traditional structure by rejecting it. Shed treats composition as a non-issue, almost an afterthought, which it clearly isn’t to him judging by his work on Shedding the Past and as alter ego WAX. The bits and sketches on The Traveller feel like cropped portions of a painting, delineated fractions of the whole lost in transportation, spilled out of the luggage and shattered into shards on the hotel room floor. Like Actress, this is meant to divide people, to encourage hardline stances for or against. Yet, like I declared in my review of Actress’s Splazsh, I’m torn on The Traveller. I’ll defend the aesthetics and timbre any day of the week, but it doesn’t take me or lift me the way, say, “Strings of Life” does. The Traveller leaves me a frustrated observer, looking at the party through the peephole, techno experienced as a traveler, a tourist with no intention of staying around before proceeding to the next town.