When electronica exploded in the ‘90s, sub-genres were hurled like little galaxies into the far reaches of the musical universe. There were laws to each of these styles, templates that acted like gravitational force. Classifications such as trip-hop, jungle, and trance each brought along prescriptions for ranges of tempo and styles of beat. By the turn of the century, though, these rules had all been broken down, stripped for parts, rearranged. How appropriate that is for a genre that so often features samples of previous recordings, cut-and-pasted, stretched into new forms. Along with the expansion of electronic forms, live instrumentation was increasingly brought into play, further blurring the lines between electronica, rock, jazz, R&B, folk, composition, and whatever else.
Now’s a good time for me to introduce you to Man. This French duo belong to the “whatever else” category, if they can be said to belong to anything at all. The music on Helping Hand, their third album, is constantly changing. Like water running downhill, the sounds created here follow an instinctive logic, instrumentation and ideas going where they will instead of where they should. A glance through the catalogue of Man’s new label, Sub Rosa, hints at the breadth of what you’ll find on this album. With avant curios from the likes of James Joyce (yes, the author) to Morton Feldman to DJ Spooky, you should expect the unexampled. And, while you won’t find any excerpts from Finnegan’s Wake, a vast palette of sounds await you on Helping Hand.
The press sheet I was given instructs me to file Man under “electronic.” This may come close, but I tagged them as Unclassifiable. To be sure, the album often has the feel of modern electronic music, with the occasional glitchy beat and surgically cold loop evoking Matmos, who’ve shown us a thing or two about reconstruction. But, just when you’ve wrapped your mind around this approach, a piano emerges. The playing is too varied for this to be a sample, too considered and fragile to be programmed. Instead, it is François Rasim Biyikli weaving sadly beautiful arpeggios into the mix. It’s this blending of synthesized elements with live, unmanipulated acoustic instrumentation which begins to set Man apart from the pack of more ordinary men (and women).
But these are just the tools they use. What is truly remarkable about Man is how carefully and sparingly they use their various instruments and machines, carefully moving the sonic focus from one spot to the next. These guys understand the linear narrative implied by the medium, and they use their fifty-two minutes to create a tour through the senses. Yes, I do mean senses, as in beyond the merely auditory. Because you don’t have to be synaesthetic to hear the drippings, twinklings, scratchings, and hummings of Helping Hand and experience these sounds as shimmering visions or as bumpings against your body. And, if I weren’t eating an Oreo right now, I would probably be able to taste the buttery splash of trumpet in the David Sylvian-ish “Drifting” or the shot of vodka that rushes through your system as the clubby “You’re in for It” builds and builds, heating your adrenaline and tilting you forward, forward, forward . . . until it drops you into a cool, cruel, blissful simmer. It’s a great ride, and you’ll want to take it again.
Not every track is quite as engaging. “Strange Feeling” relies a bit too much on a low, warbling rumble in order to get the title’s point across. And Charles-Eric Charrier’s spacious acoustic bass thrummings at the beginning of “8mm” drag on a bit long before a Philip Glass-like piano motif carries us into new and interesting terrains. For better or worse, some parts of the disc demand close attention to the tiny details that Man provide, while other sections function best as background music. In that way, listening to Helping Hand is like your mind on the edge of sleep, when you’re not sure if the elements of your dreams have carried over into the waking world, or if it’s the other way around. This is the somnambulant journey you take with Man. It is beautiful, shadowy, and illusory. It will leave you hazy-headed and wishing to return. And this is okay; this is good. Allow your mind to follow the water’s downhill path. Let yourself go. Return.