To call an album “background music” is seen almost unequivocally as a smear, an insinuation that the music in question is insubstantial, unremarkable, and bland. Chilean-born, German-raised electronic artist Ricardo Villalobos’s latest effort Empirical House is not itself background music, being too deep and nuanced to deserve such a label. The album is fascinated, however, by the aesthetics of lounge and even elevator music, transfiguring these through his trademark lens of minimal techno to create a study of interior space and social contexts.
Empirical House is comprised of four tracks, each roughly 12 minutes in length, which traverse the boundaries between listener and environment in different ways. Opener “Widodo” is the most overtly loungey of the bunch; vague, ambient marimbas drift in space like the idle stirring of ice in a glass, bringing to mind public yet anonymous milieus like a waiting room, hotel lobby, or posh restaurant. These are spaces where self-expression is stifled or at least policed from standing out too much, where occupants are conditioned and enjoined to remain self-contained and socially presentable.
Against this backdrop, Villalobos’s microhouse beats kick and push back subtly. Rather than merge seamlessly with their surrounding environment, there exists a degree of tension between the two elements. If the pleasant airiness of the marimbas and the stray, hushed snatches of passing conversation represent something external to the listener, the techno beats seem to stem from somewhere more personal. The thread between the two is a swift, jazzy bass line like something from a house band, though this too becomes deconstructed and transformed in the final quarter into a stuttering dance movement. Combined with an accumulation of heavier backbeats, it’s as though the interior self gradually seeps into and eclipses the social space as the track progresses.
In contrast, “Bakasecc” is a more receding, defensive number, its robotic melody fluctuating minutely within a constricted, strictly enforced range. The track recreates the feeling of perusing an otherwise silent area, like a library or an office, with headphones in, again suggesting a negotiation of boundaries and expression. On two occasions, sudden and jarring upheavals of noise invade the arrangement before evaporating as quickly as they arrived, temporarily throwing off the balance.
“Subpad” is the most dynamic, and best, track on the album, shifting between rhythmic arrangements with relatively extraverted and uncontained pleasure. Periodically, it shifts away from its dazzling array of claps and drums for a relentless stretch of bass beats, swelling to the largest and most immediately satisfying proportions the record has to offer. Title track and finale “Empirical House” brings a slightly different take to the album’s study of interiority, with its samples of heavy sighs and intestinal squirming offering a bodily perspective on the matter.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to feel a bit squeamish listening to these motifs. Taken together, though, the album’s second side concludes things on a bold and nearly euphoric note, the individualistic assertion of dance overtaking the confines of conformist space. Empirical House may lack in range and versatility to some extent, and while it is no Alcachofa, it nonetheless remains a conceptually intriguing set of tracks from an inimitable producer and influential voice in the world of minimal techno.
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