[26 September 2010]
Have you ever heard a synthesizer disintegrate? Ever heard a cable modem explode?
Have you ever wanted to?
With Old Punch Card, Sam Prekop is the architect of a raw, digital landscape of electronic effects so harsh and basic, its parts are hardly “songs” in any respect but, more accurately, fleeting fragments of sound. The noisiest, most aimless stretches of Old Punch Card could be mistaken for a music editing software firing on random without a musician operating it. There is plenty of EQ shifting, a shitload of buzzing and percolating. There is very little in the way of melody, rhythm, or harmonic development. Forget about beats. The rhythmic section of your brain will latch onto the popping fuzz in “Knitting Needles” or the malfunctioning dial tone blast in “Lazy House”, but that’s just your mind playing tricks on you.
Prekop isn’t some faceless electronic musician finally getting exposure. At least, not by any regular definition. You might be familiar with his other gig: fronting and playing guitar for jazz/lounge-inflected indie rock veterans The Sea and Cake. As you’ve likely surmised, Old Punch Card is about as lounge-y as a root canal, and even sort of sounds like one. Prekop’s two previous solo ventures, his self-titled 1999 debut and 2005’s Who’s Your New Professor, were logical extensions from the sound of his day job—crisp, sunny, instrumentally rich tunes brought to life by his hushed, breathy voice. Featuring nary a vocal and only one guitar take (the brief, warped acoustic that opens “November September”), Old Punch Card will arrive to die-hard fans as a stone cold shock.
It’s not fair, however, to simply write off this collection as pure drone. There is substance buried in the din, if you’re willing to dig. There’s also a clear methodology on display. Eager to try something different, Prekop explored “early music concrete and electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Nuno Canavarro, Raymond Scott, David Behrman, and free improvisation” and made clear rules for himself: no vocals, no guitar (well…he almost stuck to that rule), and no beats. His instrument of choice is modular synthesizer (which has a tonally refreshing quality, much more pure sounding than a lot of synths you’ll hear) and found sounds tweaked within an inch of their lives. There could be anything from buzzing air conditioners to TV static on these tracks, and knowing that fact does make the sounds more intriguing, even though they sound like they could have been generated from basic beat program samples.
To his credit, Prekop knows when enough noise is enough. He lulls you into a mechanical numb, but he never lingers there for long. He allows the effects to fizz and crackle just long enough to give the moments of actual melody a substantial impact. Like a musical hypnotherapist, he is able to snap you back to reality at any given moment—when lovely sequenced synth patterns float to the surface at the end of “Old Punch Card” and “Brambles”, the effect is both rejuvenating and disarming, in equal measure.
If you like your mood music weird and wandering, you’ll find much to savor in this disorienting package. Old Punch Card is a noble experiment, possibly one unworthy of a full-length album release, but a noble one nonetheless. It’s often difficult to watch an exceptional, respected artist throw such a divisive curve ball, especially one as polarizing and difficult as this one, but you have to respect Sam Prekop for following his muse. Whether or not anyone follows him down this peculiar rabbit hole is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, put on your headphones, turn off the lights, and see if anything glows.