[3 March 2010]
It’d be hard for any artist to follow-up an album like Pantha Du Prince’s 2007 deep house masterpiece This Bliss. Yet, in doing so, Hendrik Weber, the lone man behind said project and the auteur who defined the Dial Records sound, has established a three year holding pattern between albums, which is, as the cliché dictates, a lifetime for the world of electronic music. This means that: 1) we can expect the next full length from him to drop around 2013; and 2) Weber spent a great deal of time negotiating the intricacies of his latest LP, Black Noise, since he dropped This Bliss upon unsuspecting listeners in the latter half of the previous decade.
A pastorale constructed somewhere in the niveous Swiss countryside, the writing of Black Noise found Weber assembling field recordings from his natural surroundings, which were apparently partly devastated by a landslide. Those hinterland quivers, the austere beauty of a reflective and untarnished landscape, the sense of personal isolation, and the cold indifference of mother nature to human whim are all elements which bleed into these tracks. Like previous Pantha Du Prince outings, the songs retain their clubby tendencies, but the tract of Black Noise’s trek, its measured propulsion, is guided by sled rather than automobile, the car being the semiotic machinal pedigree of electronic dance music. To this end, Black Noise contains within it the danger of losing its way in the arctic abstract of the unexplored barrens, whereas Detroit/Techno City’s auto-matism always glides within the slick and well-mapped urban planning of artificialized roadways, even when it takes unexpected psychogeographical detours.
Pantha Du Prince often gets mistaken for a minimalist act, which is a particularly stultifying shorthand given how loaded the project’s material can get. Minimalism, for all its deep-listening gazes inured of wonder and awe, tends to parse the realm of predictability for intimate revelations of what transpires beyond the surface, surface meaning that outer layer where pleasures are satiated by order and structure. By contrast, a Pantha Du Prince track is only predictable insofar as it can be counted on to start in one spot and end somewhere quite different. Black Noise explodes this quality of Weber’s sound further than on any previous release. It opens wide its possible ends and dilates the canvas through which those ends might be achieved.
One of the album’s tracks that discards the aforementioned praxis and digresses somewhat into techno’s structural engineering is appropriately entitled “A Nomad’s Retreat”. This title is revealing in that it recognizes its groove-induced repetition, the very minimalism projected onto the Pantha Du Prince project, as a “retreat” from an itinerant and nomadic path. Elsewhere on the album, fluorescent bells and blindingly polished triangles chime quite beautifully above prosthetic synths and aerated drones in tracks like “Lay in a Shimmer” and “The Splendour”. Found sound percussion bounces like rubber balls across channels. Sounds are charted by the beats, but wander freely behind the obscuration of the alternating wintry phosphorescence and seasonal affective disorder common to Pantha Du Prince’s often melancholy house.
If, as has been suggested, one can imagine the earth quakes of Wonky and Dubstep as a brutalist part of the unrealized “Dance Music” in the IDM acronym, Pantha Du Prince’s brand of nomadism can be said to be the gentler and more proudly ornate counterpoint to the former. Like Mouse on Mars, many of Pantha Du Prince’s best passages appear for a few bars and either disappear forever or reincarnate right when you thought they had been forgotten forever. On “Welt Am Draht”, an arid choir of voices appears early on and later materializes amidst some Four Tet-ish toybox tinkering cut to a strange time signature and settled only via the centrifugal motion of the drums. The voices return after a whimsical updraft of xylophone and buzzy bass assumes dominance in the mix.
The aforementioned time signatures changes and melodic eclecticism betray a kind of proggy sensibility. However, far from the angular chops of Yes, et al., Black Noise takes the now standardized Pantha Du Prince approach towards instrumentation in its blunting of notes, particularly basslines. This also differentiates the tracks from the razor-edged square waves and staccato hits of techno and IDM. Sound clarity in prog and IDM often seems preferred by its authors to showcase the craftsmanship that went into the design and process of those tunes. By melting away the distinctions between one sound and the next, Weber pronounces that he’s far more interested in affect than effect. Here he also notes that he shares perhaps more in common with the shoegazers than the beat architects. Yet, this mush of sound, sweet as it may sometimes be, may be the album’s only major impediment, as it can at times dull the impact of certain songs or passages, particularly when they meander too far away for Weber’s rhythmic science to reign them in. “Bohemian Forest”, for instance, is a bit to boho and undisciplined for its own good.
The consensus now seems to be that the Panda Bear collaboration, “Stick to My Side”, is Black Noise’s major misstep. True, the odd pairing of the descending scale vocal with a jittery dark and moody backing track doesn’t exactly mesh, but at least it’s not a play-it-safe moment. Lead in by epileptic loops of dubby drum shivers, beneath the vocals, the track works well. It’s just that the Noah Lennox’s voice seems to have come from a different session, a separate track unassociated with the one at hand. Still, the vocal does pose a pertinent question that the rest of Black Noise seems to answer in full, “Why stick to the things that I’ve already tried?”