Various Artists: Alt+F4

[4 May 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

The second edition of the Alt+F4 Festival of Improvised and Electronic Music took place in Warsaw, Poland between the 15th and the 18th of May 2003. Sponsored by the Center for New Forms Salvia as well as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the event was designed to present a new vanguard of Polish and Austrian experimental music to the world.

This companion CD serves as a fitting introduction to the abstruse world of Eastern European experimental electronic music. As such, it is a grab bag of conflicting styles and motifs, with a few memorable experiments balanced by some regrettable misfires. The primary problem seems to be that many of these artists simply have one idea which becomes the template for an entire song, one sound or noise which can be repeated for three or four or eight minutes in the hopes that something ominous or profound will arise. Usually “experimental” music has little to do with conventional standards of melody, harmony and rhythm, and this is to be expected, but many of these tracks seem to take glee in merely annoying the listener.

First and foremost of these annoying tracks is the live excerpt included from Zbigniew Karkowski’s contribution to the “Turning Sounds” event. It begins with an ear-piercing whistle, similar to a bubbling tea-kettle, only louder and much more insistent. This unlistenable noise continues for one-and-a-half minutes before it is subsumed by conflicting tones and finally, three minutes after it began, dissolves into similarly ear-piercing static. Every now and again I come across one of these static & siren artists, and I just have to wonder why they do what they do. First of all, the first and second waves of industrial music already explored the aesthetics of unbearably painful noises fairly thoroughly, so it’s hardly untrod ground. Secondly, even if you concede some sort of conceptual interest, this is just not something that anyone can listen to for any sustained amount of time without experiencing ear damage.

Vion & Mem produce something similar with “Salvia”, only this sounds a bit more like a sinister dentists’ drill offset against random electronic burbles. Mem returns again, accompanied by Wolfram on the track “Fosfor”, which thankfully lacks any sort of ear-splitting siren noise, but which is unfortunately merely nine long minutes of burbling static. I am slightly reminded of Pan Sonic’s recent Kesto project, an album that managed to utilize grating static for somewhat more noble purposes than mere droning repetition. Pita, cofounder of well-regarded Viennese label Mego, contributes “Neon Aspirin Ver/87136” which is another variation on the droning static template. Only this track actually seems to have been constructed around a purposeful movement, featuring one note held throughout the piece which steadily descends down the scale until, seven minutes later, it has dissolved into a hum of static.

But there are a few highlights to be found. Fennesz’s “Chateau Rouge” is the only track included to feature any sort of acoustic instrumentation—in this case, a gentle acoustic guitar mangled and morphed by combative electronic static. Spear’s “Without” is an interesting and surprisingly calm track, featuring a series of sustained bell tones struck at regular intervals and digitally manipulated.

The last two tracks are more in line with the experimental electronic music that has traditionally been produced in Western Europe. Laleloo’s “Song of the Soot Siren” could easily be an Aphex Twin outtake, with oddly rustic noises built into a vaguely ominous mock pastoral. Vion & Piotowicz & Staniszewski finish the album with “Fuck the Marginal Critics”, which would not have been out of place on Autechre’s abrasive Gantz Graf EP—which should tell you pretty conclusively where it stands.

The sum of this album is not so much impressive as merely interesting. There’s a lot of repetition and redundancy here, ideas that might seem quaint to anyone familiar with the more bracing output of Warp or ECM records. But there are also a few promising artists hear who might bear watching.

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