The 2002 arrival of the King of Woolworth’s debut album on American shores was one of the first clues that something strange was happening on the borderlands of electronic music. Ming Star was a strange piece of work, combining the cut and paste ethos of artists such as Coldcut with a decidedly more organic feel, almost as redolent of American folk as anything produced under the banner of IDM.
Of course, astute listeners might be able to trace these developments all the way back to 1998, with the release of Boards of Canada’s seminal Music Has a Right to Children. In a similar fashion to Air’s Moon Safari, Music Has a Right to Children inspired a legion of copycat groups to follow in their distinctive footprints. But there was something very different about the groups who tried to follow in Boards of Canada’s footsteps. Instead of merely aping sun-drenched French pop in the guise of downtempo, as Air’s followers had done, Boards of Canada’s many admirers were trying to pin down something slightly more anomalous, and just a little bit dangerous, and this anarchic harvest has borne increasingly potent fruit in the past few years.
For groups like Boards of Canada, in addition to Four Tet and Matmos, the vital hook comes from the dichotomy of using artificial means to replicate organic methods of composition. Instead of the burnished perfection that characterizes the majority of electronic music, these artists attempted to insert something very human and almost scattered. And as with Boards of Canada, the disconnect between human and inhuman creates sounds many an ominous note.
Rediffusion, the King of Woolworth’s third album, steps away from the low-fi discord of his first two releases, and advances toward a more elegant style, heavily influenced by ‘60s instrumental pop. Fans of Lemon Jelly or the first two Blue States records might find a lot to like here.
The album begins with “Coccolo”, a track that begins with the simple interaction of French horn and xylophone, slowly adding an organ and a bare hi-hat until a lazy beat suddenly blossoms underneath. It’s a song that reminds the listener of quiet spring days spent frolicking in fields of tall grass and napping in the shade of a tall tree. It soon becomes obvious that the goal of Rediffusion is not to upset but to soothe. We’re a long way from Ming Star‘s unsettling and angry “Stalker Song”.
“Big Sur” is one of the most obvious BoC swipes I’ve ever heard—from the narration straight out of a ‘60s nature film to the coruscating minor-key synth chords to the deceptively placid beats, it could easily pass for BoC among less discriminating listeners. It’s not a bad song, as such, but it tips its hat a bit too broadly for comfort. “Yellow World” begins with a bit of crazy English narration that could easily have been leftover from the Orb’s recent recording sessions, and builds slowly from a simple breakbeat, with ominous bass noise and echoing theramin flourishes throughout.
“Ameublement” is one of the album’s best tracks, a very simple piece built atop a repeating melodic synthesizer sample. There are minimal 808 samba beats underneath, along with faint harp flourishes that fade in and out of your earphones. Its striking in its minimalism, and moreso for the fact that it is very effective. “Music for Schools” is a decidedly melancholy composition, with an odd little organ sample laid across a stuttering, deliberate beat.
“Crazy Lions” presents the listener with an alternate reality wherein Link Wray jammed with Orbital. “Windrush”—at almost eight minutes—is the album’s climax, a gently escalating synthesizer-led instrumental in the vein of Meddle-era Pink Floyd.
The deciding mood for the remainder of the album is blissful relaxation. Some of these tracks, like “The Loner” and “Stimulus Progression”, could have been cribbed wholesale from any number of ‘60s movie soundtracks, full as they are with experimental synth textures and loping lounge beats. “Divertissements” is a mournful organ-driven mood exercise that bears resemblance to something Death in Vegas could have recorded around the time of The Contino Sessions.
There’s nothing at all wrong with Rediffusion, and it is actually quite a pleasant album, perfect for a lazy summers day. But there’s nothing terribly original here, and there are enough bits of blatant theft that even the casual electronic music fan should be able to have great fun playing “spot that swipe”.
// Notes from the Road
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