My ex-girlfriend (As of two weeks ago. Yeah.) told me once or twice that I didn’t seem like a very “reflective” person. The first time she said it, I was genuinely taken aback—my reflectiveness, my inward-looking nature, was practically how I had defined my being through years of high school dysfunction and collegiate academic obscurantism. The second time she said it, though, I realized she was right. Hadn’t it been a while since high school? Hadn’t there been countless nights since then of baking-soda excess, of dazed macking, of furious, sweaty dancing? Hadn’t there been days of ambitious craftsmanship, of hustling, of struggling—of looking forward instead of inward? I realized, belatedly, that unlike Mel Gibson’s opus, I am not as I was. I no longer meticulously chronicle each emotional tic, each unrequited crush, each blazing night of motionless mad cogitating—I think I finally just more or less figured out all of the big questions that bothered me, and moved on from there.
Back in those painful days of becoming what I was, I loved music that stressed me, vexed me, tested me. I loved ten-, fifteen-, twenty-minute “pieces” (never “songs”) that offered me not something to hold or react to, but a space in which to move, a play/training ground for my overactive mind and heart. I loved sonic dust, wafting two-note melodies, tiny and fuzzy and hesitant. I lusted after sounds that were as broken and confused and complex as I felt. For about three years, I did a college radio show called “Sleep Not Work” (now also the name of my blog), on which I played, among other things, a lot of electronic music of the sort directly descended from Aphex Twin and Autechre. Artists like Kid 606 (so hard because he was so soft), Fennesz (before he did the Beach Boys), Oval, and Pan Sonic, as well as more obscure names like Radiosonde and Eric La Casa. But in the last few years, my interest in this sort of stuff has waned dramatically, in favor, mostly, of hip-hop, rock, and jazz. But I do remember enough of that old music to remember what I liked about it, and listening to Richard Devine’s Asect/Dsect brought home to me, quite sharply, that “sensitivity” doesn’t just spring effortlessly forth when someone experiments with the boundaries of electronic music.
Moments of reflection are rare as hen’s teeth on this album. But I’d say Vice’s characterization of it as “nightmarish” is also off base—Devine doesn’t reach out to the listener either to sympathize or terrorize, to scorn or uplift. This is instead music as mathematics, something to which you must pay close attention, which offers you no shortcuts. You have to really work for it to have any effect on you, either viscerally, emotionally, or mentally. Hell, you have to work to read the song titles, embroidered as the liner notes are with trailing spurs to nowhere, detail that proliferates unto meaninglessness—just like the songs. For the duration of the second track, “Banskrap” (I think), amid all the whooshing micro-hi hats and hamster-wheel squelching, the layer upon layer of drugged machinery, all I could really focus on was that its underlying beat is identical to “In Da Club”.
Subsequent tracks are mostly similar, with a straightforward and rarely relenting beat augmented by a filigree of multitimbral noise. Back when I still followed this music closely, I would have occasional fevered discussions with music friends over why people couldn’t dance to the stuff—why couldn’t everyone loosen up and, y’know, just vibe to some Autechre? Now, while some little part of me does grant Devine the degree of craftsmanship that went into this music, most of me is just asking whether he could’ve carved out just a little bit of extra time to come up with some melodies, some actual songs, or maybe even the sort of relentlessly shifting non-songs that Kid 606 made work so well. What we have instead are just beats plus aimless noodling—and that’s not what gets people moving on the dancefloor, or even within their own minds. Just as the album ends, he proves that he can do things differently. “Randale” has a great melody, though Devine also chooses to take it slow down the track, which demands the question: may melody only tread where the beat does not? Are the two mutually exclusive?
A few tracks are of a wholly different stripe, mostly the album-opening “Cprec” and the later “Let Menbax”, both of which eschew beats and melodies altogether for something more obtuse. But somehow they seem to matter a lot more than the beat-driven tracks, as their imprecision seems sincere. Devine lets tones and sounds stretch out without structure, beats and loops surface and sink intermittently, rather than stitching them surgically and sterilely together. The noises are also quite naked, detailed, and with all the delicacy I might have wanted back in the day. The contrast between these tracks and the rest of the album is striking, as they, along with “Randale”, seem to be close to actually expressing something, while the rest of the album doesn’t want to touch or be touched. I know I’ve felt like that at various times in my life, but about the worst thing I can imagine is some angsty teenager sitting in his room listening to the looping lifelessness of “Floccus”, contemplating the meaninglessness of existence and the uselessness of other humans. This type of music used to bill itself as Intelligent Dance Music, and from its geometric cover inward, the album constructs itself as challenging. But much more important, for good chunks of Asect/Dsect, Richard Devine is making music every bit as nihilistic as the most trite floor-filler, but with none of the fun. I’ll take the fun any day.