Sticks and Stones
If there’s one thing you learn by reading the press release for Anstam’s second album, Stones and Woods, is that this German producer (whose real name is Lars Stöwe) likes to talk a lot about himself. In the third person. Here’s just a sample of what he has to say about this new album: “I started to miss the feelings I had when I made music as a kind of an isolated self experiment. So, I decided to get that back and I started with the Anstam debut album Dispel Dances. I started an expedition to search for that euphoric state of mind that I had in 1997 and I was searching for it in Anstam. All the things Anstam could be already flashed up in Dispel Dances but this album was about going inevitably towards the big unknown, with all the good or evil it could bring. Stones and Woods is not about searching anymore, it is about observing. It is about being there. Deep in the heart of Anstam. Standing there and adapting to all the Anstam mannerisms.” It goes on from there; in the short paragraph about Stones and Woods, I counted seven references to Anstam. However, I’m happy to report that Stöwe (or Anstam) has earned the right to talk about himself as he does with this record. It is a slightly flawed album, but there’s a lot to chew on with Stones and Woods, a long player that merges dark techno and electronic sounds with analogue instrumentation.
A lot of Stones and Woods actually reminds me of the bands that were signed to Canadian indie label Nettwerk in the ‘80s, bands like Skinny Puppy and a clutch of other Goth-y keyboard bands whose names have long since been forgotten that called the label home. (I have a mid-‘80s vinyl sampler from Nettwerk sitting amongst my massive record collection. Somewhere.) That’s not to say Stones and Woods is an industrial throw back. It isn’t; it’s much more than that. And there’s a little bit of metal-style mannerisms to be found here, too. But Stones and Woods doesn’t have guitar shredding theatrics or anything of the sort. It’s just that the record shares some of the dark foreboding you can find in that genre, especially on opening track “Morning Shiver Down the Black River”, which starts out shimmery with an evil and ominous keyboard sound, like the instrument is delivering the theme song to some dark funeral procession. And final track “Shoulders” starts out with a low throbbing sheen of white noise and static, reminding me of a snippet of a song I heard from the recent Old Man Gloom album. So, yes, Stones and Woods is an experimental album with metallic touches, but one that also has its share of pop songcraft. “Hope’s Soliloquy”, with its thudding drums, its cascading keyboard lines and its funky bass, could almost pass for something by New Order, if New Order had a much harder edge.
Stones and Woods is a largely instrumental affair, but there are lyrical snippets here and there, particularly on “Me and Them”, though they’re hardly discernible and are delivered in between some drum rolls, starting and stopping the track at its start, meaning that the song has a hard time really getting some traction. This makes for an argument that Anstam (or Stöwe) sometimes lets his more pretentious tendencies come to the fore. Still, the track, once it gets going, is quite loopy and jazzy in equal measure before it morphs into some celebratory ‘80s keyboard washes before transforming yet again into a sorrowful mood piece that is downbeat. If “Me and Them” offers any sort of indication from this description, it is that Anstam is unafraid of shifting the slope of his songs to have multiple movements within them, even if the songs sometimes run only three minutes and thirty seconds. Whether or not this is an indication of the artist’s temperament and impatience may be a point for discussion, but it does prevent pieces of Stones and Woods from ever falling into the boring camp.
Another highlight is “Heart’s Soliloquy”, with its moving synth line that is quite poppy and catchy, backed with all sorts of glitchy percussion that glides the song along, making it sound like the most woodsy thing on Stones and Woods. “My Dreams Are Made of Steam” might be the most overtly ‘80s pseudo-industrial moment on the record with its snippets of gibberish vocals that are stitched into the piece and its rafters-shaking booming low end bass, but, yet again, there’s much more than that here with its 8-bit keyboards pumping some muscle. There’s also a metronomic beat to this song, too, just like there’s clock-like clicking on “Morning Shiver Down the Black River” that suggests the passing of time is a major thematic to Stones and Woods. (Indeed, to further that point home, there’s a nice organ-drenched piece here titled “Time Will Show You Who I Am”.)
All in all, Stones and Woods is gripping for the most part, an album that reveals its layers with each passing listen. An argument could be made that some of the songs sound a little similar to each other, but this is usually rectified by the fact that there’s a shifting of melody in some of these items. So while I suppose Anstam likes to talk about himself as though he’s somebody else, an ostentatious move to be sure, you could say that that just bolsters the idea that this record is a work of art. It’d be nice if Anstam would just let the music do the talking, but with Stones and Woods, he’s created a bit of a discussion piece for others to enjoy. It’s now just time to let everyone else take part in the conversation with this charming and sometime portending piece of work that is sunshine and gloom in almost equal measure.