Various Artists: Touch 25

[15 August 2006]

By Nicolai Hartvig

Twenty-five years, 25 compilations, change and progress. British label Touch celebrates a quarter century of conscientious devotion to electronic music—having flown in the face of the commercialist freight train by sticking to its core philosophy of keeping with innovative, though carefully managed, experimentation—with a compilation that has.. wait for it… 25 tracks.

Over the years, soundbox samples and digitally manufactured beats have shaped, inspired—and even become—the core of electronic music. The late 1990s brought a new trend, introducing real-life, organic sounds into the cold machine music. Touch is that history in reverse and across. More spartan and stripped than the Leaf label, more frivolous and experimenting across genres than ~Scape, Touch has also been more natural all along, occupying the ground between nakedly culled real-life sounds and electronic soundscapes—something that is evident on this compilation. But what is also clear is a gradual move from sound collage to melodies.

The tracks on Touch 25 are sandwiched between vignettes of field recordings by various artists: airline pilot announcements, a crackling fire, news broadcasts, industrial screechings, and rain. Danish music archeologist (literally, he lectures on the subject) Jacob Kierkegaard used an accelerometer to listen in on the Swedish nuclear power plant Barsebck before its closure in 2005, sampling tube sounds for Heavy Water. BJ Nilsen samples gushing rain and wind meshed with the creaking lament of a wooden shed on the southwest coast of Gotland. The purest real-life collages highlight the early years of Touch with Chris Watson’s “Conversations” from 1980 providing a cacaphony of grinding metal levers as, the booklet explains, “a dredger rolls drunkly up the River Clyde” in early morning-Glasgow. He then visits a Mexican railway crossing near a dormant village for “Oujela Mine”.

With this retrospective, Touch also seems to admit that it has shined brightest in its later years, as it has applied its naked soundscapes more sparingly, and in a closer hybrid with melodic electronica and real instrumentation. Even though the label has steadily released records since 1982, the vast majority of tracks are from 2005, with a sprinkling of 1990s items and a few others from early in the new millenium, a time when album releases went up. This was the era when Touch picked up Norwegian jazz-slanted maverick Geir Jenssen’s Biosphere alter ego, easily one of the finest of the genre today, and Austrian guitar texture virtuoso Christian Fennesz—the label’s two best known (and probably also best overall) signings.

Biosphere records animal howling and water on “Spring Fever”, showing a closer-to-pure collage sound than fans will be used to. Among Fennesz’s contributions to Touch 25 is “Tree”, one of his more restrained productions, leaving out those signature crisp crashing guitars in favour of simpler acoustic strummings and a sublimely sorrowful mood. Peter Rehberg directs a threatening storm of rivetingly spitting reverb spits on “TT1205”. Jonas Johannson offers the Sigur Rós-like incessant blue tones of a violincello and ring modulators on “Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai”. The newest is best on Touch 25.

Interestingly, it is when Touch veers completely into laptop sounds that it finds it hardest to strike electronica’s delicate balance between peacefull bliss and unnervingly cramped sounds or mindsplitting static hiss. Pan Sonic pull and stretch the digital canvas, continuing the trend of Touch artists more art than music, more about ability and experimentation with sound parts rather than the result of the sum total, the song itself. It makes for some tough listening. The repetitive, reverberating drone and silky clicks of Oren Ambarchi’s “Moving Violation” evolve into a saw-shaped abrasive wall.  Rafeal Toral’s “Glove Touch” pierces the mind. But the unease of electronica is by no means purely digital, as Mother Tongue proves, updating a track recorded in London in 1988 with a disquieting mix of cavernous drumming, ominous humming, and spoken words.

Cornering the musical equivalent of object trouvé and augmenting it, Touch has carefully maintained a red thread through its releases over the years, successfully progressing from collage sound art to symbiosis with music and melodies without leaving behind the intricacy. Touch 25 may not have the apex of each of its artists, but it is a cross-section of sounds that reveals the heart, soul—and span—of the Touch label. So while the compilation is hit and miss, it remains valuable as a label synopsis for cognoscenti and collectors (especially as it’s also out on a limited edition cassette, even as the manufacturing of cassettes grinds to its final halt this year). Others are advised to pick up Biosphere’s fantastic, although underappreciated, album Cirque or Fennesz’s beautiful Venice for a taste of how sublime this music can truly be. But Touch remains one of the few labels that is eternally interesting. No mean feat, after 25 years.

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