Flanger: Nuclear Jazz

[19 June 2007]

By John Bergstrom

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

“Flanging” is a type of phasing effect that essentially “warps” an audio signal and makes it sound strange, ethereal, and processed. That’s an apt inspiration for Flanger, the post-jazz outfit run by Germans Atom TM (aka Uwe Schmidt, aka Señor Coconut) and Burnt Friedman. With an esthetic that is equally experimental and playful, the duo became known for slicing, dicing, re-arranging, and generally playing around with traditional jazz sounds, eventually adding elements of Latin, world beat, and big band.

Nuclear Jazz finds Flanger fooling a bit with their back catalog. Specifically, it collects on a single disc re-mastered, re-edited versions of their first two albums, Templates (recorded 1997 and released 1999) and Midnight Sound (recorded 1999 and released 2000), adding a rare remix as a bonus track. Both of those albums are still in print and easily available, so Nuclear Jazz is most likely intended to provide a compact, economical introduction to the duo via their earliest work. Purists beware: The single disc format has necessitated that most of the original 17 tracks be edited down by anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, resulting in a cumulative loss of about 20 minutes.

If Templates and Midnight Sound are indeed “classics” as the promotional material for Nuclear Jazz claims, then is it really responsible to desecrate them by gutting so much of the original material?  The recent Love compilation suggests that not even the Beatles’ classics are too sacred for modern editing techniques, but is a 25-minute version of Sgt. Pepper really a viable option? And Flanger don’t even play pop music. Friedman himself performed the edits, and the whole project is well within the group’s anything-goes paradigm. Besides, a jam-packed, 80-minute disc is still a whole lot of Flanger.

Templates is very much a part of the “glitch” electronica movement of the mid-to-late 1990s, which also included acts like Squarepusher and Pole. Schmidt and Friedman sample traditional instruments and then whittle them down to crackles, pops, and bits of static—the framework of tracks like “Music to Begin With” and “Options in the Fire”. The frenetic arrangements do stumble into what sounds like bits of a small ensemble playing, almost as if by accident. A few tracks cohere; the woozy, relatively calm “Endless Summer” is appropriately-titled; “Full On Scientist” leans on heavy samples from the titular dub artist; “Lata”, the best of the Templates bunch, paints a brooding, faraway atmosphere with sampled voices and a subtle melody. Most tracks, though, sound too much like templates—ideas, albeit interesting ones, that need to be fleshed out.

Again, the title is appropriate on Midnight Sound, as the tracks take on a slower-moving, somnambulant feel. Schmidt’s fascination with Martin Denny-style exotica comes to the fore, with vibes and Latin percussion featuring on nearly every track. “Night Beat 1” is especially seductive, sampled voices lending to the disembodied feeling as double bass and brushed snare sashay underneath. “Angel of Love” utilizes a funk rhythm that goes a step beyond “acid jazz”. There are weaknesses—the Joe Satriani-style guitar solo sounds like it came straight out of Steely Dan’s nightmares—but overall, the abstract crackles and pops of Midnight Sound support a more solid framework rather than dominating like they do on Templates.

As a package, Nuclear Jazz works quite well. The first nine tracks establish the elements from which Flanger draw their style, and the next eight put those elements to work in service of something more substantial. You could argue that Miles Davis, whose electric work in the 1970s is clearly a big influence, needed only to make Bitches Brew once instead of spitting out hours and hours of similarly experimental material. It’s good to hear that Schmidt and Friedman didn’t get stuck chasing their tails in their artistic quest. The upshot is that very little of Nuclear Jazz sounds dated at all. You might not want to listen to it every day, especially the first half, but it’s always interesting and very often engaging. Clearly, there’s more to Flanger than a couple Miles fans having their way with a digital sequencing program.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/flanger-nuclear-jazz/