[9 July 2007]
Often in spite of itself, Rumpelzirkus, the debut full-length from Swiss-based Kalabrese (actual name: Sascha Winkler), diligently manages to absorb and beguile. It’s an uncommon listen, so stubbornly idiosyncratic at times and yet well-proportioned in its utilization and reformatting of minimalist house. The duality of Rumpelzirkus springs from Winkler’s insistence on not pandering to our lust for salacious dance thrill-rides. He does deploy a bountiful cache of samples, percussive gallops, reverb, and intermittent dub. But the effect couldn’t be any more unexpected: mid-tempo kineticism, warm-ups not blast-offs which, though loose and enlivened, never boil over. The sum total is a peculiar brand of spontaneity, one that unwinds with insistent patience and a zeal for songcraft.
If blueprints were plausible for such singular pieces, the 11 entries on Rumpelzirkus, with their anchored beats amidst a maze of disparate components, would appear as congested contrivances. But execution is eminent here, and a running length just shy of 64 minutes permits a broadened space for such activity and, consequently, massages away the potential for a mad bustle.
The starting one-two punch of “Oisi Zuekunft” (feat. Da Mezga) and “Not the Same Shoes” (feat. Kate Wax), each about 7 minutes long, aptly embodies this dynamic. Alluring and frustrating, both jog to within footsteps of a bumping discotheque and then halt to focus on a horn bridge or storm cloud crackles rather than on a sweat-drenched, sped-up tempo. “Oisi” actually contains multiple ruses, as it opens with stock (verging on the point of farcical) reggae banter: “Where’s the future? …. It’s the divine consciousness …. Start your own religion ...”. A house flow soon engulfs this momentary flash of dub. The song’s destination, however, smacks no less of a sleight of hand in how it’s thicker in sound, throatier with vocals, and yet very much similar, tonally, to what it began as. Also, how the moderate pacing remains so fixed around an ebb and flow of spastic garnishes is entrancing. “Not the Same Shoes” darkens its sonic hues, up-shifts the pace, but seems keener on settling into itself than seeking out proper climaxes. This surprising style flouts some of the logic to music even while achieving a well honed functionality.
Despite the apparent ingenuity, Rumpelzirkus can’t always overcome its noncommittal follow-through. Some of the material reveals its hand prematurely, dallies, and then just refuses to make a move. The rhythmic buildup, haunted droning, and askew squelches of “Deep” provide sumptuous teases at the outset. Where it goes amiss is in mistaking these juicy entry points for the red-meat of the song. As it does here, drawn-out atmospherics can quickly backslide into a lackadaisical plod, especially over a seven minute stretch. By the time the watery and bland “Lose My Chair” arrives, a sense of old hat familiarity sets in and seems to damn the remaining numbers.
Seeing that the subsequent song, “Auf Dem Hof”, is an almost 10-minute foray might break the patience of an already perplexed listener. But it rewards perseverance and demonstrates what the slightly shorter pieces might have gained from a minor extension. “Auf” mostly bops along like the others with dub trombones and spongy percussion, all the while feeling adamantly coiled. Then, right as it appears to conclude, its steady groove gracefully unwinds into a calm, scenic patch of horns that foresees the sunrise lushness of “Body Tight” (the closer and another ball of surprises). “Auf” isn’t even finished yet, as it bursts into splashes of funky-jazz brass before finally bowing out. It’s a left-field trip that poses the unexpected proposition: perhaps Rumpelzirkus isn’t long enough.
That’s a problematic sell. But extra time (likelier, fewer tangents) may have enabled Winkler to engage in more of the genre-dabbling that he does with the two excellent sleeper tracks, “Hide” (feat. Guillermo Sohrya) and “Heartbreak Hotel”. “Hide”, a versatile meld of somberly muted emotion and prickly sonics, is the finest song of the entire group. For once, the elusive trickster opts to be forthright in his composition rather than veiling himself behind a mysterious house format. The smoky minimalism of “Heartbreak Hotel” is similarly literal, even if Winkler’s lyrics sketch an incomplete portrait of love on the outs.
Such moments of directness, though, prove rare. What Winkler shoots for instead is the unexpected, the sensation of bamboozling at the hands of a maddening but magnetic sonic oddity. Be persistent with Rumpelzirkus. Submit to it and you’ll experience the mischievous sport inherent to any trick.