[23 March 2009]
If you can believe it, the latest from international sensation Ricardo Villalobos is a work of progressive minimalism. Those two words may seem contradictory when placed adjacent one another, but they seem all too apt when Vasco is on.
Flummoxing melodies like the odd patterns of “Electronic Water” seem to possess endless potential. Yet there’s a sense that these same abstract synth patterns and nomadic sub-bass riffs are still claustrophobically enclosed, enslaved to the beat, and denied opportunities to rise to a shimmering and/or dizzying crescendo. It’s closed circuit music, existing in its own codified world where Villalobos’s restrictions, and concurrently his loosening of former restrictions, are the most satisfying part of each track. It’s a noteworthy examination of a look at the liminal space between the formalist and the abstract, even if the results can readily be described as more than a little bit “difficult”.
As minimalism’s reigning god-king, Villalobos seems the appropriate investigator for this terrain. He has spent about 15 years exploring margins and splitting atoms in that most reductive of aesthetics. In addition to the pretty stuff and the heady stuff, he has also focused, particularly in the last couple years, on music that reads like pure labor, unilateral loops so transparent that they call attention to the canvas beneath. Longform works like Fizheur Zieheur or last year’s “Enfants” single are constructed like bricklaying for the perimeter of an empty interior, the building blocks of house music laid out in Zen-like uniformity for deep concentration on the individuation of the rows and columns. It’s Frank Stella gone clubbin’, the K.I.S.S. principle taken to its fanatical extreme.
Villalobos pieces outside of this diminished style have the opposite effect, choosing evolution of small ideas over utter stasis. These, like “The Contempt” single, to take one, transition with such subtlety that the listener becomes shocked by how much has changed by song’s end without their apparent knowledge or participation.
Vasco’s trajectories are neither invisible nor negligible, but it’s hard to deny that the minimalist tag still applies. The jaunty and jagged pitch-bent slides of the full version of “Minimoonstar” are better described as cranky than dynamic. When protracted in this version to over 30 minutes (which at this point is and old trick in Villalobos’s handbook), there’s plenty of leg room for the tantrum to manifest within, and it quickly spreads to the electric conga drums, the snares, and even the warm synth pads. It’s genuinely unsettled music, even if it can’t escape its rhythm. Still, as strangely appealing as the track is in a way that brings to mind Steve Reich studying quantum mechanics, there’s an inadvertent and unwelcome time-stretching effect that strikes as the song’s orbit nears its event horizon. After an enjoyable 15 minutes or so, each successive minute of the song begins to feel unequivocally longer than the last. Each listener will have to be forced to draw their own conclusion as to whether the track is too exhausting to sustain the challenge of its anti-narrative or not. The best I can say is that it’s certainly worth a try.
“Electonic Water” and “Amazordrum” are like that breakneck brand of IDM favored by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher in the late 1990s, crunked to a languid house pace and separated note by note for clarity. “Skinfummel”, the only track here that wasn’t part of the Vasco 12”s (which also included a bunch of remixes by Shackleton, Baby Ford, and San Proper that have been excluded from the CD version), might be the standout track. A wildly processed French female monologue comprises most of the ominous psychedelic ambience of the track. The stoic voice rants about something or other (I don’t speak French and it’s probably better not to) pitted against a very simple four-on-the-floor kick until vague kaleidoscopic melodies and stick-thin tribal rhythms rescue the song from complete sterility. As with its three sister album tracks, it’s gallery music for the discotheque or vice versa.
Groundbreaking postmodern art has always called itself into question. “But is it art?”, the detractors like to ask, as many who’ve never been indoctrinated by the genealogy of minimalism and Villalobos surely would. Yet, Villalobos has been embraced with open arms by the dance community, who named him Resident Advisor’s Top DJ of 2008 and lavished him with critical adoration in nearly all of the major music journals of note. It’s pretty amazing for someone so obscure, and perhaps more so for someone whose meticulous craft requires a patience that the rush of the information age generally tends to discourage. He has a global audience of admirers, even in the US, a place where he refused to spin during the Bush II years.
At this point, his reputation for repetition precedes him, so deviation from this norm should be praised for its audacity. As a gamble Vasco may not return 100% on the investment, but its combination of fractionary charms and warbled mood lighting make it worth glossing over anything Villalobos may have missed between the big sound and little details.