Sometimes it’s easy to get blindsided, particularly when you’re not paying attention. Thomas Fehlmann’s Honigpumpe showed up in my mailbox with relatively little fanfare. Sure, it was released on Kompakt, one of the most consistently great labels in modern electronic music. But while I’ve yet to hear a bad Kompakt release, I am also not foolish enough to expect sheer brilliance simply based on the presence of their bracing minimal logo. 2007 has also seen the release of the Field’s From Here We Go Sublime—perhaps the best electronic music disc of the year. So, I freely admit, my guard was down.
“Atmospheric” is a word that really gets abused in rock criticism. Hell, I’ve done it myself: Any time a song or an album has any kind of evocation of space or depth, let alone swirling synthesizers (how exactly does a synthesizer swirl, anyway?), the same tired old “atmospheric” adjectives get trotted out of the pop critic thesaurus. Brian Eno’s Music For Airports is “atmospheric” in a very literal sense, in that it is meant to be played in the background at airports, diffusing itself in space and passing beyond conscious perception, becoming less a piece of music than a facet of the environment. I would describe Interpol as a particularly atmospheric band, not in the same strictly literal sense as Eno’s work, but definitely in terms of establishing a three-dimensional space inside the music that pulls the listener inward.
Fehlmann’s work sits somewhere neatly between these two poles. My first real inclination that this album was something special came after I’d already listened to the album a handful of times. It was playing almost as an afterthought, background music while I was checking my e-mail and surfing the Internet. Suddenly, I felt a vivid sensation of being pulled into the music—by not paying attention to the songs at all, I had fallen into it, in much the same way as it is possible to see the hidden object in a “Magic Eye” picture only by trying not to see it. In an instant, what had previously seemed nothing more than boilerplate minimalist techno became truly alive, grasping with firm hands and forcing me to examine the music as a three-dimensional presence.
Once I heard this kind of depth, it was impossible to disregard the music. Certainly the music on display here is techno, built on Kompakt’s familiar minimal template of sparse microhouse beats and tech-house influenced basslines. But there’s something different here, as well. Fehlmann is a veteran of the techno scene, as close to an eminence grise as can be conceived for such a comparatively young genre—some say he put out the first British house record back in 1986 (recording as Ready Made). He’s worked with Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter, Erasure, and is currently a member in good standing of the Orb. He knows his way around dance music. Typically for the label, Fehlmann’s sound manages to skirt the realms of total minimalism while still evoking a great deal of pop-esque passion. “I.R.N.I.I.Z.”, for instance, builds slowly from a swampy, dub introduction and eventually into what can only be described as a minimal blues track, with hard stabs of harmoncia and very sparse guitar set against a loping, downright Chicago blues shuffle. It’s nothing I’ve ever really heard before, and I’ve listened to a lot of electronic music.
That Fehlmann can conjure such organic imagery out of such a supposedly artificial medium is one of the mysteries of truly great electronic music. A track like “Arbeitstitel”, which may seem on first (or second) glance to be nothing more than an amiable cacophony, reveals its texture and structure with careful listening. It’s a pop song, albeit a particularly fractured one, with all the bits and pieces of the melody and harmony cut up into tiny pieces and placed throughout the track in such a way that they only come into focus from a distance. There’s so much lush warmth here that the music can seem almost over-full at times, like an overexposed photograph taken on a cheap camera. Tracks like “Soziale Wärme” bring to mind nothing less than My Bloody Valentine in terms of sheer blissed-out stupor.
Honigpumpe is almost the definition of a “grower”—not an album to which one should listen lightly, but a disc that demands the listener’s fullest attention to be appreciated. While it is perhaps not as immediately fulfilling as the numinous likes of From Here We Go Sublime, it is still a significant achievement from Fehlmann and another gorgeous feather in Kompakt’s cap.