[3 February 2010]
Take a look at the photograph on Silence’s cover, and for just a moment, try to imagine what it would be like to wake up from a dream and be there. How would you feel? Confused? Suspicious? Terrified? What kinds of thoughts would be running through your mind as you register your monochrome environment? Would you notice your heart beating, the way your whole body moves with the pumping of your blood? How quickly would it go? Look at the tire tracks. Where is everyone? Did all the people suddenly leave this place? Did something horrible happen here? And what’s around the corner? Is it an escape? Or is it a trap?
I’ve administered this little exercise several times with varying results, and what I’ve discovered is that the photograph doesn’t stay in one place. Without hearing the music it pairs with, it can seem pretty, a bucolic bit of landscape to accompany a billowy release from 12k or Type. Flip Silence on, and the photograph transforms. The trees are no longer a golden white; they’ve been drained of color the way blood leaves the face during a brush with death. You start to notice all the grayness in the sky. The tire tracks look just a little more urgent, the curve in the road more sinister. A thousand score composers will tell you the same thing: Music changes our relationship to images. When Silence whirrs threateningly on the speakers, my harmless surroundings turn swiftly into dangerous ones—the walls could start to cave in, for example, or someone might bust through the door in the next second wielding a machete. The reason why this is somehow a desirable experience is the same one that keeps thrillers in theaters.
Let’s make one thing clear from the get-go: The sound on this record is unbelievable. Berliner Robert Henke, now the sole face of Monolake and a highly sought-after hardware and software designer, pulled a Chris Watson and collected field samples from around the world—water dripping in the Florence Botanical Gardens, sounds from inside a giant antenna in Berlin, airport announcements, typewriters, Grand Canyon winds, and workers in Swiss railway tunnels, to name a few. He then arranged them into taut rhythmic patterns and added the barest traces of melody, using no dynamic range compression whatsoever; in the production notes, Henke writes a cynical missive regarding how radio and mp3 players have caused producers to flatten their music into a max-level pancake. Call him elitist if you wish, but the dynamics are a huge part of what lends Silence its evocative power. And should you choose only to listen on earbuds or anything else that can’t handle its range, don’t tell Henke, and promptly locate a stereo system that can, for this is among the clearest-sounding electronic music money can buy.
“Once upon a time,” Henke writes, “Music had dynamics. There were loud parts, and there were more quiet parts.” Whether or not he intended it, Silence’s loud and quiet parts operate in fascinating, highly effective simultaneity. Henke is a perfectionist and he labors over his beats to ensure they hit their targets, but what thrusts them into sharp relief is an undercurrent of soundlessness you feel more than hear. It’s not silence, exactly; picture, instead, the sense of being on your own in unfamiliar territory after everyone has evacuated it. On “Watching Clouds”, the creepy scene-opener, a stifling, vacuous air magnifies noxious drones and a swarm of plinking noises like yellow jackets trying to breach a tin roof. Midway through the record, “Avalanche” drops us into the center of the Arctic tundra with minutes to go before the titular phenomenon commences. By setting vast expanses of quietude against racing, near-redlining rhythms, Monolake nailed the combination of internal and external experience that has characterized some of our most frightening situations. Even the slow-moving “Infinite Snow” and the beatless “Void” feel frantic.
On an album both this spooked and this minimalist, the devil is in the details and the mind can play tricks. My pulse rose upon first hearing the slight tempo increase from “Far Red” to “Avalanche”; I then discovered, with the aid of a BPM counter, that “Avalanche” was actually the slower of the two songs, but that Henke had given it a certain beat structure that creates the illusion of speed. The coiled effect placed on the woman announcing safety protocols in “Null Pointer” makes her sound almost Russian, which didn’t freak me out until “Shutdown” several tracks later, and heaven help me, I still can’t listen to its high-octane toms and clangs without thinking about Chernobyl. The human presence returns in a different form on “Internal Clock” as a rising and falling hum, but if it did, in fact, derive from vocal chords, the way it ended up—part monastic chant, part malevolent god, part smothering machine—is so disorienting that I don’t think the brain knows quite how to deal with it.
“Observatory” is a strange conclusion because it doesn’t really conclude the album; it just stops it. But was there ever going to be a pat ending? While innumerable experimental musicians have tried over the past couple years to get their processors to reflect the majesty of nature, Monolake took the admirable step and went somewhere completely else. Silence pits us against the world in a formation that ensures our loss, but not before we size up our opponent and run like hell to avoid it. That’s the experience this record provides, over and over and over again. And it would have been absolutely anathema to us if Henke hadn’t considered the value of suspense and given Silence the super sound quality it needed to be genuinely suspenseful. It’s a little hard to believe that Monolake was once a member of the Berlin-based Chain Reaction stable in the mid-1990s. Some of those acts have since died off (Pelon, Hallucinator), some have aged into dub techno dinosaurs (Fluxion), and some have disappeared down their own weirdo rabbit holes (Vladislav Delay), but as for Monolake, all of his records since Hongkong may as well have been one long lead-in to Silence. It might just be his best album yet.