The press release for Putting Holes into October Skies inadvertently does a better job describing its shortcomings than most critics could. According to the release, Phononoir, aka Berlin-based Matthias Grübel, gained inspiration for the album by “loading arbitrarily recorded noise bits and sampled sounds from daily life into a drum computer.” Surely this statement was meant to establish Grübel’s noble experimentalism, but it becomes a bit laughable when you listen to the music and it sounds like… well, no need to be redundant.
There used to be two ways you could go about being a reclusive, ultra-sensitive misfit musician: Gently strumming an acoustic guitar while mumbling observational lyrics with all due world-weariness, or locking yourself in your bedroom with a computer, home-made electronics, and a hard-drive full of alienation. Now people like Grübel are beginning to mix those two approaches. The results get plenty of attention on the blogs; and, to these artists’ credit, the results can be quite beautiful. It’s just that listening to them for more than a few songs at a time is going to put you to sleep—if you haven’t already suffocated from all the self-seriousness.
Not that taking yourself seriously is a crime. If Putting Holes into October Skies is pretentious, it’s a very subtle form of it. And the dry, desolate, guitar-punctured existentialism is much easier to stomach coming from an everyman like Grübel than from Radiohead, who have made a career (not to mention tons of money) from it. Possibly aware of this, Grübel has included a song called “How to Become Invisible”.
But disappearing into a world like the one Grübel creates on Putting Holes into October Skies is a dubious proposition. Musically, the fuzzy tremolo of “A Hymn for Silence” is as peaceful and majestic as the song’s title suggests; “Slowdown” goes it one better by eking out a sad little guitar melody amid the pulsing, clicking electronics. But too many tracks are meandering, repetitive; and, worse, boring. “Panodrama”, for example, starts with a nice, snapping synth/percussion combo that then goes nowhere for several minutes. The handful of instrumentals occasionally recalls the artful understatement of Bill Frisell, but is inconsequential. Eventually, the womb starts to feel claustrophobic.
Adding to that effect is Grübel’s voice, a dry, closely-mic’d croak that is, yes, world-weary and generally disinterested. When intelligible, his lyrics are literate and predictably personal—phrases like “I’m feeling incomplete… I will unfold” and “I can feel rainfall outside of my room” illustrate the feeling of inertia that hangs around the whole project.
Putting Holes into October Skies is an insular album that presents Grübel as he really is. You can only hope he gets out for a pint and a round of pool once in a while.