[23 February 2009]
Since the turn of the millennium, countless producers have been chasing the sleek, ebullient, and deeply satisfying aesthetic of the cosmic disco of the late Force Tracks label. Consistently making the prize more elusive has been Finland’s Sasu Ripatti, one of the early Force Tracks elite under the nom de plume Luomo. Luomo has gotten a lot of traction out of well-polished glacial synths and brisk bouncy beats, and Ripatti’s albums have consistently seen this sound grow exponentially outward.
Convivial, the fourth Luomo full length, embraces fully the pop soul that was always curled up inside his previous albums. Even Ripatti’s alter egos in Vladislav Delay and Uusitalo pepper their respective dubby ambiances and dense tech-spires with arresting melodies. Convivial, then, is more of a logical extension than a departure.
The word Convivial is an adjective meaning festive and sociable, particularly as those qualities pertain to good food and good company. Convivial the album serves up both of those, though there’s certainly an ironic undertone to the title. As sumptuous as the tunes are, they are rarely voracious, preferring to make up in poise what many artists of Luomo’s ilk compensate for in glut. It’s ultimately an album whose intricate productions come out sounding slender, which is part of what makes it so refreshing a listen. The modern moment in non-minimalist electronic music tends to grant salience to fat bass and room-conquering dynamic range compression. Convivial’s percussion is wonderfully migratory like the music that accompanies it, but it never feels the desire to use a pounding bass drum as its compass.
In addition, the title’s invocation of “good company” is also deceptive. It’s not that the seven guest vocalists that appear over the course of nine tracks don’t contribute greatly to the overall success of Convivial (though Chicago house icon Robert Owens is sadly underutilized on “Robert’s Reasons”). Despite the ubiquitous competence of its performers, Convivial is an album of isolation and despair. Though each lyric was written collaboratively between Ripatti and his peers, they all seem to have arrived at this connecting motif, forming their own lonely crowd, introspective partygoers looking for communion on the dancefloor.
“I want to love you all / I want to save you all”, Apparat’s Sasha Ring says in the album’s most infectious dance floor anthem, as if he distance between the DJ booth and the dancers around him could be measured in miles. The track is a deep and dark synthpop rush and Ring’s croon aches and moans in a manner that’s part diva and part David Gahan-esque wail. Though consisting of only a few lines, “Love You All” speaks pressingly about the unusual relationship between DJs and their audiences, who look to the club as sanctuary. The word “save”, then, is not a conceit, but a sacred trust, one that’s hard to fulfill when the only dialogue communicated between the two is the music itself. “Don’t want to waste your beauty on…”, Ring continues.
Elsewhere, this loneliness and helplessness gets amped up. “It’s a shadow world we live on”, states Johanna Iivanainen on “Slow Dying Places”, which, in defiance of its own name, forges forward with at a menacing pace into a dense piece of architecture not unlike something out of Monolake’s Polygon Cities. “I sleep with the stereo on”, confesses Iivanainen later in the album on the downtempo “Lonely Music Co.”, extending the bond between sound and listener further.
Of course, what helps prevent this anguish from turning completely emo is Ripatti. In the past, Luomo has often reduced his vocals to shards and snippets for rhythmic purposes. Convivial finds him unable to resist the temptation, particular on the second half of the album, which takes an entropic trajectory away from language. However, even amidst his best constructions, Ripatti is never afraid to take a backseat or ride in tandem with his guests. His ear is perfectly tuned for the tension and release of techno-pop, sly to the timing needed to achieve his ends. While much house music exceeds the six-minute mark because its repetitive character allows it, Ripatti measures his marks carefully on Convivial. As a result, tracks with quite lengthy durations are marked by their brevity and restraint.
When those vocal fractions do appear in ethereal dub flange makeup, they resonate so well because their ghostly presence seems to pierce right through the music’s thin marrow. So much of Luomo’s glittery synths sound crystalline enough to be nearly translucent, which is perhaps why it can be so beautiful and yet so approachable (“Sleep Tonight”), or so claustrophobic without ever sounding convoluted (“Nothing Goes Away”). It’s like you can reach inside the music. And since Ripatti appears to be reaching out on his lyric sheet, I’m sure he’d be happy to hear that.