[23 October 2011]
The last few years of genre promiscuity have thrown up numerous gimmicky recontextualisations—from reggae Radiohead to bluegrass takes on metal classics—and German trio Brandt Brauer Frick are part of this same faux-venturous intermingling. With conspicuous dedication, their game is the re-imagination of minimal techno’s familiar textures and features with acoustic instruments—a stark and solemn shuffle of looping piano, clacking wood-chimes and fizzing rainsticks. But there is far more to Brandt Brauer Frick’s self-policed aesthetic than pure novelty. Both the title of this sophomore effort and that of its predecessor, 2010’s You Make Me Real, explicitly address the notion of bringing a traditionally sparse and dispassionate electronic genre to organic life, but Brandt Brauer Frick also manage, perhaps even more impressively, to track strands of musical evolution and investigate their intersections. Equal parts jazz, classical and minimal techno, Mr. Machine may be predictably restrained, but it also persuades the listener, very naturally, to accept the unusual.
It is only a year and a half since Brandt Brauer Frick’s debut: a breathless forest of woody percussion that played intriguingly on both Brandt and Brauer’s jazz ensemble roots and Frick’s classical education. The relative haste with which this follow-up emerged suggests a group less concerned with creating a definitive album than with exploring and furthering their fledgling sound, and whilst the sonic palette remains largely familiar on Mr. Machine, this is still evidence of a band growing in confidence and settling further into their distinctive skin. In fact a good portion of this record is not “new material”. Several of You Make Me Real‘s standouts are revisited and reworked here, highlighting the trio’s learning-curve and giving the impression that BBF’s canon is itself a fluid work in progress. “Mi Corazon”, a cold and tinny motorik effort on the first album, is imbued here with far more warmth and three-dimensionality. Rather than evoking a clinical factory floor, the track is placed firmly in the concert hall—all echoing refinement and bursts of buoyant horns.
This same process of transfusion is evident on another returning cut, “You Make Me Real”. The restless metallic chatter of its initial incarnation makes way for scrapes and whistles that suggest animal life or creaking boughs, and a melody that previously was content with meandering is given a shot of adrenalin via the addition of orchestral strings and brass. The latest version of “Bop”, meanwhile, shows less concern with mimicking the electronic sounds of techno and instead flags up the vitality of its looping piano motif, whilst a reworked “Teufelsleiter” injects jaunty keys where before its beat was far more mechanical. These re-recorded efforts then, which often show only slight changes in composition, demonstrate a clear process of restless revision. Chiefly this returns to the “you make me real” mission statement—tangibility is highlighted in a fashion that suggests Brandt Brauer Frick are becoming less interested in mimicking the sounds of electronic music with acoustic instruments and more concerned with experimenting with its forms with instrumentation that retains its distinctive original character.
That said, several of the songs making their first appearance here find the trio at their most compulsively danceable. “Pretend” weaves taut aquatic percussion around a detached vocal repeating the gloomy mantra, perhaps a comment on the artist/listener relationship, “just for tonight/we can pretend/that we are friends”, before cresting in a swell of dramatic strings. “On Powered Ground (Mixed Lines)” is possibly BBF’s most single-mindedly pounding effort yet—another endlessly repeated vocal sample, reminiscent of some automaton Feist, on top of tightly swaying rhythms. This is probably also the record’s high-point. A pumping slice of dance floor fodder. All the while, though, listen from a different angle and you will realise that the urgent throb that marches the song into action consists of thrusting violins.
Because ultimately Mr. Machine works wonderfully as minimal techno (as BBF’s blistering club sets make clear), but it also evokes hallmarks of 20th century minimalist classical—the looping repetition of Steve Reich being perhaps most keenly felt—and qualifies as vibrant percussion-heavy jazz. Overall, Brandt Brauer Frick seem less concerned with replicating one genre with the tools as another, so much as with presenting a fluid and voluble study of a hundred years of inter-genre musical progression. Scaling horns will interject over a scrambling pattern of breathless keys, sylvan percussion clattering away urgently in the background, and we find ourselves at a joint in musical history’s skeletal frame, at one moment nodding our head to sinuous jazz, then lost in a classical reverie, all the while willing our feet to tap, our head to nod. In seamless layers common ground is tracked and exploited, and with a creak and a shudder, shaking itself upright, the machine comes to life. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t dance.