Monolake: Polygon Cities

[14 July 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

The nature of techno is such that incremental variations can be perceived as massive advancements. The early template, designed by Kraftwerk, influenced by the birth of house and honed in Detroit, remains a fairly telling point of departure for many modern artists. Whereas much of modern electronic music is fueled by the perception of fashionable trends and a fair degree of (sometimes grudging) cross pollination, techno exists in something of a rarified air, holding fast to its own notion of fashion, with all the requisite insularity that such an isolation would imply.

In other words, much as your average indie rock snob might exult over insignificant but telling modifications in the shape and fabric of post-Pavement lo-fi recording with little or no heed given to the vicissitudes of mainstream rock radio, techno folk tend to operate in a vacuum. To a stranger, a member of another tribe peering in from the outside, it might all sound like so much “plonka plonka plonka”, or perhaps even thoompa thoompa thoompa”. But regardless of your onomatopoeia of choice, if you aren’t already an initiate it’s hard to get excited about such opaque differentiations.

Which, in case you’re wondering, is not an indictment of Monolake. Polygon Cities is a fine album, and the tracks which comprise it are fine examples of current trends in minimalist techno. In the past few years there’s been a turn away from the massive and grand, inwards towards the intimate and intricate. The sound of artists such as Matthew Dear and the Kompakt roster is complex and detailed, rewarding an attention to detail with well-constructed rhythmical patterns built out of disparate elements combined for cumulative effect. The style on Polygon Cities could almost be termed progressive techno, insomuch as it retains a fondness for those atmospheric elements of Jamaican dub, which in turn creates a resemblance to the airy, slightly removed aesthetic of progressive house. It is well-crafted and enjoyable music, just not very striking.

The album begins with “Pipeline”. Oddly enough, this track reminds me of nothing so much as “World In My Eyes” by Depeche Mode. The recurring keyboard riff which begins “Pipeline” album is very similar in tone to the riff that begins the Depeche Mode track, and even the cavernous percussive rhythmical elements bring to mind the late era synthpop sheen of Violator. It’s probably a coincidence, I realize.

“CCTV” utilizes a self-consciously retro glitch beat in concert with frenetically syncopated percussive hi-hat strikes to create something akin to early Aphex Twin, complete with looming, ominous synthesizer noise just around the corner. The mood takes a decided turn for the sinister on “North”, with all the frigid and unwelcoming connotations such a name might invite. Again the beats are slight, almost the vitiated shadows of full percussion. Everything has been minimized and mechanized, so that the result is almost a toy track, a fully miniaturized microcosm.

Tracks like “Axis” and “Digitalis” continue to combine the effete rhythmical approach to ominous atmospherics. An odd ambient interlude, “Wasteland”, introduces the more resolutely aggressive “Plumbicon”, which acts as a slightly more dancefloor-friendly departure in addition to being the album’s last song. The repetitive and commanding beat, along with the evocative and sparse keyboard melodies which bring the disc full-circle to its first track, create a satisfying note on which to end the album.

Techno is by its nature a repetitive genre, a field built around the conceit of expressing emotion through emulation of the slight temperamental variations in precision machinery. There is nothing new in Monolake: their fragile intricacy, brooding atmosphere and preference for the subtle revelation over the grandiose movement place them well of a kind with the cutting edge of techno in 2005. But there is, conversely, little here for those not already enamored of the genre.

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