[11 April 2012]
Some people are doers, and some people are perceivers. Robert Henke, the man behind the roughly 15-year-old Monolake project and the Ableton Live software he utilizes, is both. Not just that: For Henke, perceiving and doing are parts of the same creative process, informing him at every turn. Ghosts came to him as he was daydreaming and concocting a story rich with drama and detail. (If you don’t own a copy of Ghosts on CD or vinyl, Henke has generously transposed the story from the liner notes onto his website, and he urges you to read it as you listen.) The album’s core sounds arose from the various items Henke found around his house and perceived to be sonically interesting—things like pebbles rolling around in a bowl and glasses clinking together. Henke calls them “whimsical little sonic creatures,” and in a certain sense, they are ghosts: The sounds as we hear them are not the items themselves in action, but rather the invocation of them, exhumed through the power of recorded media.
Henke played around with found sounds and field recordings on his last album, Silence, to thrilling effect. With Monolake, everything is vivid, an experience to be lived instead of simply heard. This is why Henke prefers that people listen to Ghosts on shiny vinyl, read his thoughts in the liners, and play it from front to back. Yet even a short listen on a mediocre system reveals that Henke possesses the rare ability to bring out the soul in his machines. As with most of his records, Ghosts is full of paradoxes: It’s electronic but acoustic, monochromatic but multifaceted, mechanical but lifelike. Like a master chef, Henke knows himself as well as he knows his source material, and he projects the complexity of his psyche onto the music he makes.
That the story accompanying Ghosts begins with the image of flies is apt, not just because the buzzing intruders approximate several of the record’s sounds, but also because they leave us with an image of hollow, vacated terrain, in which only a bug could survive. Among electronic musicians, Monolake arguably remains the best at evoking a man-versus-nature scenario in an abstract, Heart of Darkness sense. But while Silence at times sounded downright scary, Ghosts brings us on a moderately more listenable trip. I’m not sure if Henke intended for this record to sound less beastly than its predecessor, but it’s a welcome shift regardless. Sonically it rests between Silence and old school Monolake, where sharp breaks and dub atmospheres reigned supreme. The field sounds lend an organic tilt to the decidedly chilly record, but Ghosts is alive only in the way that flies idling in the barren desert are alive. It feels not empty, nor dead, but bereft, even when the beats are pounding.
Henke’s choice to move the title track from the last song in the sequence to the first one before the record was finalized turned out to be an excellent one. “Ghosts” is an adrenaline-gathering rush of an introduction, as solid as they come, and it creates the platform for the rest of the ride. With cascades and punches of static, three haunting notes on a digitized organ, and a robotically modified vocal line—“you do not exist”—Monolake depicts, with fervent sonic brushes, a frenetic effort to eject an apparition from inside one’s head. Over the course of the track, the line becomes increasingly distorted, sounding more like “you cannot resist.” And at the song’s conclusion, Henke adds a key word to the vocal: “you do not exist anymore.” We are clearly dealing with a ghost, the absence of absence.
Subsequent songs are more abstract iterations of the theme, and they share the first track’s ominous and alluring complexity. The little considerations often yield big effects: I could feel my heart rate increase each time I heard the synthetic handclap trailed by thunder in “Hitting the Surface”, and the combo of sustained pipe organ and the thwack of the drums in “Aligning the Daemon” can twist my insides in knots. But another Monolake hallmark—treating the record as a gigantic single piece—is on display here too. Henke may be a founding father of contemporary digital media, but his heart is in the vinyl era, when people sat in their easy chairs and listened to their records whole. Ghosts sounds best from start to finish, when the abstract breathiness of “Unstable Matter” is allowed to careen into the walloping “Lilith”, and when the jagged “Foreign Object” ends Ghosts on a note of “to be continued…”—yet another of Monolake’s Midas touches.