[19 August 2010]
On my way to hand in a paper on Hamlet that I had written over the course of a delirious all-nighter, I quipped to a classmate in my 12th grade English class that it would feel good to “flush this turd.” My comment was overheard by Mrs. Anderson, our teacher, who sniped me from her 6’2” tower of Irish-American severity with the warning that if I presented my work as crap, she would grade it as such.
Princeton, New Jersey’s Rotwang would probably get the same scornful glare if Mrs. Anderson got a hold of his limited-print debut album, Awful. But whereas I set the bar low to show how high above the bourgeois virtue of academic achievement I was at the august age of 17, Rotwang seems to be openly defensive, as if he’s perfectly willing to admit he cares what the world thinks about his densely layered homebrew IDM.
Of course, another major difference between my paper and Awful is that Rotwang, who takes his name from the mad scientist of Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, didn’t rush Awful to print. It’s a long-player in the original sense of the word, as all 12 tracks run together, phrases are reiterated, and the textures have the aesthetic unity of having sprung from the same mental wellspring—even when running the gamut from searing dissonance in “An Auricle Flower” to the spastic, catchy breakcore of “The Savage” to “Journal Square”, which riffs on Pet Shop Boys as pensively as Junior Boys. The trammels of music like this—its sometimes overwhelming complexity and often willful abrasiveness—make it largely a singles game (assuming one could only bear it 5-8 minutes at a time), so Rotwang’s use of the album format is a risky move. But because Awful is so trim, at just under 35 minutes, and so listenable, the end product is an all-too-rare example of a heavy record that’s fun, in the vein of HEALTH’s eponymous debut or Genghis Tron’s Dead Mountain Mouth.
That’s why the preoccupation (in what little has been written about Rotwang) with the reclusive artist’s debt to experimental technicians like µ-Ziq and Squarepusher are misleading. Yes, Awful is filled with the stuttering beats and ambient washes which that comparison would facilely signify. But its succinctness calls for a restive form of listening that may confuse fans of those elder statesmen’s more typically languid, sometimes pretentious work. If Rotwang is stubbornly left-field, he is also, just as stubbornly, a populist.
If we have to talk influences, we should be talking about Wendy Carlos. Stanley Kubrick’s composer-of-choice nearly single-handedly legitimized the Moog synthesizer with 1968’s Switched-on Bach, which gets sampled in “I Am a Virus” with Carlos’s lispy, androgynous sigh, “That was rather sloppy, wasn’t it?” The nod is apt, because “I Am a Virus”, like much of Awful, is carried by a dog-whistle synth line that sounds like computerized Baroque—especially the harpsichord trills that come in about halfway through.
Rotwang’s choice of Switched-on Bach as a melodic muse is a strange one. Bach’s coy, busy compositions provide the pleasures of witnessing performed virtuosity, and are so far removed from the immediacy of pop that when flattened and varnished by Carlos’s Moog, they approach the avant-garde. We listen for the sound as much as the music, if not more. Needless to say, reconfiguring these textures as pop hooks, as Rotwang clearly intends to do, makes for an awkward fit. The lead melodies of “The Savage”, “I Am a Virus”, and “Cryptozoology” are too convoluted to be entirely infectious, and too needlessly noodly to generate much interest. They grab our attention and then seem a bit unsure of what to do with it.
So really, that might be the only problem with the otherwise alarmingly accomplished Awful: try as he might to hide it, Rotwang does want us to like his jams, and jams them with a little more complication than they need. One of my favorite tracks, “Holiday”, is among the noisiest, but by using its quixotic, wintry melody as a fuzzed-out backdrop, Rotwang gives the song’s manic drill ‘n’ bass room to breathe and move—and move it does, like a clattering high-speed locomotive on the verge of derailing. On another favorite, “Mouseland”, a hectic 8-bit squiggle fills in the gaps left over by a shuffling cowbell, resulting in an atmospheric rave-up that erupts from the kind of solemn piano figure you might find on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album.
In these assured moments, Rotwang’s perfectionism pays off. Other tracks don’t quite to that level of excellence, but fit so well into the brisk flow of Awful that it hardly matters. If Autechre’s Oversteps is too long-winded, Pan Sonic’s Gravitoni too coarse, Caribou’s Swim too precious, or if you are tired of waiting for the next Bogdan Raczynski release, this might be the album that defines your summer: moody, cerebral, equal parts cool and vulnerable, a perfect accompaniment to climbing heat in a cold, dark world. And certainly anything but awful.