[30 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Live albums from electronic artists are peculiar things, especially when there is zero crowd noise in them. To me, Bruce Gilbert’s Ordier and Qluster’s Lauschen sound like they were recorded as studio albums and, had I not read their descriptions online, would have been none the wiser about their in-concert nature. Robin Rimbaud can now join this group of curiously quiet live recordings with his Scanner release Electronic Garden. It was recorded in small outdoor amphitheater in Dresden, Germany back in 2007. Some the material happens to be variations on existing Scanner tracks while a great deal of it is completely improvised. And why it sat around for seven years is most anybody’s guess because it’s quite good.
More than 20 years ago, Rimbaud earned a reputation from intercepting phone calls, recording them, and meshing them together in a primordial sample soup. Throughout the years, he has used the Scanner name to cast his net wider and wider. His “music” has become even more nebulous with deep, cavernous sounds and unnerving silence. He dipped his toe into more conventional waters with the supergroup Githead, an offshoot of Wire and Minimal Compact. But all the while, his moniker stretched the limits of sound and manipulation. To listen to a Scanner album is to allow yourself to wander. You don’t revel in the uncertainty, you learn to ignore it completely. Because when you are deep in those moments, a finely-tuned sample is just as grand as a well-placed guitar chord. Electronic Garden is full of these magical passages. For almost one hour, you can get lost in one of Scanner’s most aptly titled albums. It really is a garden – everything is colorful and in full bloom.
It also lets you know, right from the first track, that this release is going to be a sprawler. “Muster” lasts for more than 10 minutes and gets off to a near-silent start. For a while, only the slightest samples and thes softest keyboards are there to guide you. Then the stutter-sampled human voice enters with ... a drum cadence? “Muster” grows slowly, like algae, to a euphoric height with some none-too-subtle synthesizers. Then it segues into the barely-there “Immaculate, Air”. Electronic Garden‘s momentum goes through spits and starts from there. “Backwood” can strike the listener as an appealing centerpiece since it rides on a tangible beat (and it has sampled voices, presumably lifted from telephone calls), but then “The Nature of Being” lies just around the corner in all its 14:44 bewildering glory. To say that this track has a shape is to say that an oval has corners. This is the moment in Electronic Garden where you, the listener, should feel free to release your grasp on whatever labels and prejudices you might have about electronic music and let it float you.
To call the three remaining tracks “falling action” is not to discredit their existence. After such a dizzying high, they help let you down gently at the garden’s exit. To leave you hanging in the air after “The Nature of Being”‘s conclusion would be more than just a little confusing. But perhaps herein lies the advantage of doing a “live” album of electronic music while outdoors – reading the crowd, gauging the atmosphere and responding accordingly. If that’s what’s really going on here, then Rimbaud is a far better artist than any plug-and-chug monkey with a budget.