[4 December 2008]
My iTunes genre tag for Jonas Reinhardt’s self-titled debut pompously insists on referring to the album as “Unclassifiable”, and you know what? I partially agree with it. Sure, there are plenty of points of reference that can be tossed around in a discussion of Reinhardt—ambient, Krautrock, Vangelis (try not to think of Blade Runner when you hear those distended synth leads)—but can this album comfortably share shelf space with any one in particular? No. Which isn’t to imply that Reinhardt is without debt to the past—it’s just that he fuses together his various influences so seamlessly that you end up with a refreshingly unique album. An excellent, consistently rewarding album? Not exactly. But a unique one? Without question.
Look at the early standout “How to Adjust People”: the track employs a string-like synth line that wouldn’t be out of place on some late-‘70s prog album (or, to use a more contemporary reference, a Black Mountain song) and a filtered drum machine as its primary implements. But, with those two defining elements in place, Reinhardt fills in all negative space with layer upon layer of sweeping electronic texture. And instead of making the track feel claustrophobic or needlessly dense, the layers of supporting ambience have the effect of fusing together the two lead elements to form an organic whole—which is something of an achievement for music made almost entirely with analog synths.
The at times staggering density of Reinhardt’s work is probably what accounts for each of these tracks’—for all their avant-garde conceits—conventional pop song length. Things usually remain within the area of four minutes, which is odd for music whose ceaseless repetition and leisurely development approaches ambient levels. In comparison to these nearly static song structures, Reinhardt’s labelmate Atlas Sound (the post-rock mouthpiece of Deerhunter vocalist Bradford Cox), whose music would be deliberate and reflective in any other context, comes off like an exercise in drugged-up prog rock excess.
That’s the flaw with Reinhardt’s album: this music is often too subtle for its own good. And, more importantly, its refusal to be pigeonholed into any particular genre of popular music actually works against it. While the hypnotically repeating motifs that form the backbone of this album suggest ambient-era Eno, the drum machines—flat and heavily treated though they are—keep things a bit too lively for the music to become aural wallpaper. Likewise, elements such as the sawtooth lead of “Tentshow” and the intermittent guitar textures of “Crept Idea for Mom” are the opposite of soothing. But treat this album as a collection of actual songs rather than a collection of ambient soundscapes, and you’re likely going to be struck by something that seems, well, static and dull.
Of course, it reveals itself to be dynamic—but only if you’re willing to give it the more exacting focus it wants but doesn’t, on the surface, appear to deserve. What we have here is a portal to a complex, cavernous undersea structure, but a portal that masquerades as a shallow puddle. It doesn’t do a hell of a lot to make you want to examine it, but those who do are in for a fairly rewarding experience. Is Jonas Reinhardt successful as a piece of unique art? Absolutely. Is it successful as an album? To be honest, just barely.