You can’t be too sure where an album is going when its first track is called “Eudaimonia” and opens with a sampled skater kid discussing the more ghoulish aspects of skateboard design (“brains coming out the ears, ya know, boogers, dismemberment kinda thing”). Are the artists intellectual bohemians? Are they slightly twisted, are they being ironic, or are they just having a laugh?
Where Manual & Syntaks are concerned, the answer (as it tends to be with any review multiple choice question; sorry for being predictable) is “probably a little and maybe even a lot” to all. Note, however, the “probably” and the “maybe”, because one of the strong points of this at times deliriously superb album is the tension caused by uncertain expectations. Both the first two tracks are expansive epics at around seven minutes, so hey, let’s chuck in a beatless interlude of barely a minute to keep things fresh. Is the listener becoming becalmed in the outer expanses of our lysergic glimmering? Time to fade everything back to bare bones scratching and some ricocheting effects, like little splinters of scrap metal being torn from the entrails of the speakers as the monster break smashes its way outwards, just to kick the happily drifting goons in the brain. There is a singer onboard (the ethereal pipes of Maja Maria), but only appears for four tracks and even then is not always distinguishable as more than a velveteen ripple washing over and amongst the shifting backdrops. No Björk-style grandstanding here; the singer is simply the most human component of a vast tapestry, not its focus.
It’s also unclear, even within the normally defined roles of a duo, just who is doing what where. The only credits on the album are for writing and production, although Jonas Munk (Manual?) gets the lion’s share of the tracks on the LP. Perhaps Jakob Skøtt (that’d be Syntaks, then) is the more outright musical of the two and plays the majority of the chiming organ/guitar/bass/woodwinds/keyboards/synths meld; perhaps he’s an expert drum programmer and gets his kicks coming up with the skittering pulsations that unleash the pounding yet clearly defined percussion sound assaulting our ears, or maybe he’s a field recordings expert. That would explain the calling birds, chirping insects, and trickling water that bid the listener lie down in the bliss of some earthly paradise. Not that the duo’s compositions would have placed us in the interesting-yet-aridly-artificial space, behind some hi-tech studio mixing table, but these and other sources have been carefully crafted into the whole and provide a great example of the pair’s attention to detail, as well as the effort to make this strange sonic realm warm and welcoming, like gentle breathing, rather than stunning but alien.
So what happened to the huge drums I was just talking about, and just what kind of music is this supposed to be, dangnabbit? A good question, sirrah, and one deserving of an answer. The main problem with answering it is that Manual & Syntaks’ music is at once original, innovative, and hard to sum up in any way that does it justice. Let’s start with instrumental hip-hop, because that’s clearly where the concoction’s core resides. If we mix that with an awareness of atmospherics and an interest in the jazzish juxtaposition of powerful percussion and more free-flowing melodic weaves, we’d be moving in the direction of, say, Interloper’s brilliant yet almost totally unknown Six Dragons, which is about right: an affecting, even arguably sentimental tone underplayed by the grit of some hip-hop inflections. Stir in horizon-spanning soundscapes, simple yet uplifting melodies, and an emphasis on the glory of sound itself—as demonstrated by Ulrich Schnauss on his finally-released-in-the-US A Strangely Isolated Place (an ecstatic review of which you can find elsewhere on the site). Finally, baste in Kevin Shields’s fascination with layers of distorted guitar sound and fractured yet intense production, and imbibe whilst watching a sunset on some strange Latin subcontinent comprised entirely of mesas and beaches where the heat rising off the land is turned into a luminous aurora by the last rays of gold as your mind goes a dusty dark red and your breath tingles, icy and marine, upon your wondering face.
God, how I miss you, Douglas Adams.
So there you have it. Shoe-gazing, psychedelic alt-hop? Sounds a bit noodly and boring. In practice, this is a record whose sometimes lengthy compositions tend to dissolve into a pleasant shimmering if just left on in the background, but which on closer listening reveals a fascinating, beautiful intricacy that manages to be driving and delicate, cute and eerie. It also has the bite that Schnauss’s albums sometimes lack. A strange and marvelous melding of extremes for the Christmas stocking of the Postal Service-adoring b-boy you love, methinks.