“What’s that?” my wife asked as she walked into the room where I had Stewart Walker’s Concentricity playing.
“Some music I’ve been asked to review,” I replied.
“That’s not music,” she said, “It’s TiVo.”
Of course, she was referring to the quirky, mouth percussion-like noises that punctuate remote control actions on the TiVo digital recorder. And, though her remark may seem rude to serious Walker fans, she had a point: There’s a thin line between what some hear as “minimalist electronica” and others hear as random sound effects. And, especially if you’re not particularly into that sort of thing, Concentricity is pretty minimal.
A collection of ten new, continuously mixed compositions, Concentricity marks Atlanta native Walker’s tenth year in the business. The liner notes play up Concentricity‘s “structure and dynamics”, but it’s all relative. It does eventually reveal those elements, but at first it’s tough to tell whether it’s really there. The music is so understated, so constructed, that it exits your brain without having left so much as a notion, much less a footprint. For some, that’s genius. For others, it’s empty space.
Throughout, rhythms and synthesizers pitter-patter away at some subtle agenda. Kraftwerk, obviously a big influence, sounded so mechanical cold in part because their homemade synths and drum machines were so quiet as well as perfectly-controlled. They didn’t use loud, smashing snare sounds; ticking, computerized hi-hats; or sharp, piercing synth leads like most other “synth pop” bands. Nor, in their most famous works, did they use any acoustic instruments whatsoever. But for many the stark, inhuman nature of Kraftwerk’s music was infused with warmth and humor by the deadpan vocals and tongue-in-cheek (or were they?) lyrics. Walker’s all-electronic songs contain similar elements of understatement and control, only there are no lyrics to make a human connection. Consequently, tracks like “Last Week’s Disappearance” and “Fragile Chemistry” are great for high-end speaker systems and headphones, and (a certain kind of) dancing. Just don’t expect them to make any impression on you.
Parts of Concentricity do vary the playing field a bit. The spectral synth waves and sub-bass of “Water Wings” are tastefully reminiscent of Walking Wounded-period Everything But the Girl. “Madness, Like Schools of Fish”, employs a continual camera shutter and creepy keyboards in service of spaced-out electro funk, the tension building slowly as new layers of sound are added. The chiming “Most Natural Thing in the World” is an effective illustration of minimalist electronica’s connection to dub reggae, while the spindly “We Welcome Utopia!!!” could almost be called “industrial”. “Fernbank 1991” is the album’s strongest track because it takes the Kraftwerk template and moves it forward, taking the familiar disco pulse and adding a funky bassline, making the music sound almost elastic. This may sound eclectic enough, but it’s all done with the same hushed tones, subtly layered arrangements, and trebly sound effects that careen from channel to channel.
The consistency of approach does make for smooth transitions from track to track. The title suggests that Walker knew exactly what he was doing when he created Concentricity, that the homogeneity is intentional. And, with no less a respected artist than Brian Eno commissioned to do the startup chime for Windows, sounding like TiVo may not be such a bad thing after all. Eno’s composition, though, lasted just under four seconds, while Concentricity clocks in at nearly an hour. For something so meticulously constructed, it can sound a bit too much like wallpaper.
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