Has contemporary electronic dance music, in all its permutations, been around long enough to engender a “retro” trend? Or has it just stagnated?
Films & Windows is Lawrence’s first release on his own Dial records since 2003. Maybe, then, it is an intentional throwback. Whatever the case, the album’s clean, minimal house music sounds straight out of 1998. Or 2003, or any time over the last 15 years, really. Like a lot of house music these days, it seems mired in its own aesthetics. The steady, sturdy, yet ultimately unobtrusive 4/4 beats, the quirky basslines, the metronomic hi-hats slicing through. You get the feeling you’ve heard it all before. And you have.
Lawrence is the alias for the German musician Peter M. Kersten. Despite the label-jumping, Films & Windows primarily continues in the vein of his last album, the wistful Until Then, Goodbye. It’s immaculately-produced and filmic at times. Mostly, though, this is the kind of music that you imagine being played at a planetarium while star maps and auroras are projected overhead.
There are plenty of blips and bleeps here, but these songs are not scuzzy enough to constitute “glitch” techno. Kersten’s primary strategy for creating a track is to take that 4/4 pitter-patter, add an insular pulse of a bassline, and eventually saturate the thing with expansive synth tones.
The template really works on a couple tracks. On “Etoile Du Midi” the synths are ethereal and pretty. You could lose yourself in them, especially on the dancefloor. “Har Sinai” uses a panned, ping-ponging synth to create a videogame-like effect. Then come the hi-hats, and they are mean, whipping the track along. Hi-hats may not seem like a big deal, but they have been a staple of house music since its genesis. Few contemporary producers get more out of them than Kersten does. Then, of course, come the synths. On “Har Sinai” they truly sound like “angels at night”, to borrow another song title.
Unfortunately, “Angels at Night”, like too much of Films & Windows, simply floats by on the periphery of your conscious mind. Maybe that’s what Kersten intends, but the album’s very title suggests he’s aiming for something more evocative. True, the sampled voices at the beginning of “Kurama”, coupled with those atmospheric synths, are a bit haunting. The tremolo-heavy “Creator (Final Call)” invokes a general sense of unease. But Kersten doesn’t drive the ideas home. Maybe he figures everyone will be too busy dancing.
In a sense, you could call Films & Windows timeless. After all, no one gives a neo-folk act any grief for using acoustic guitars and singing in high-pitched tones. After more than a decade on the job, Kersten seems to know exactly what he wants out of his machines, and exactly what he is going to get. He is not trying to push the envelope.
The “less is more” approach of this type of house music has always had its detractors. The real issue here, though, is Kersten has at times in the past made music that falls squarely on the “more” side of that equation. The 2006 compilation Lowlights From the Past and Future comes to mind. Films & Windows,though, too often settles for “less”.