[16 March 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Much like the music therein, the history of Swayzak’s Snowboarding in Argentina is amorphous and difficult to pin down. The original 1998 release from London knob-twiddlers James Taylor and David Brown was issued in the UK on Pagan and in the US on the Medicine Label. The UK CD, UK vinyl, and US CD all had different track listings. Now, with both Medicine and Pagan long gone, Taylor and Brown present this remastered version of the album on their own label and with yet another track listing. This, claim Taylor and Brown, is the definitive issue, “the way it was always meant to be”. If you say so, guys. But what solidifies Snowboarding in Argentina‘s status as a seminal release is that, in any iteration, its combination of cold precision and warm tones remains strangely appealing…and compelling.
This latest issue adheres most closely to the original UK CD version, with “Red Farm” replaced by “Evil Dub”. Also, everything has been re-edited. Most tracks are lengthened, sometimes by several minutes, to better reflect their original 12” vinyl versions. For good measure, a couple tracks are trimmed. If Snowboarding in Argentina dealt in more traditional song structures, the merit of these re-edits would be more debatable. However, while ears accustomed to the previous issues are going to be disoriented at first, this new, stretched-out version of the album serves mostly to highlight what made Snowboarding in Argentina such a striking release in the first place. As others have noted, the album’s signature accomplishment is in creating chill-out music you can dance to, ambient music with a steady 4/4 backbeat. Or, considered from another angle, it’s surpassingly pretty, relaxing house music. In 1998, this was a revelation.
Most everything still sounds fresh, too. The songs slowly come into focus like ships appearing on a hazy horizon, before slowly floating away. The effect is almost subliminal, and the basic elements are simple, as illustrated in lead track “Speedboat”. A broad, plush synth pad sets up a steady electronic pulse, pierced by staccato synths. After a couple minutes, a clinical hi-hat kicks in, and the whole thing gradually becomes more dubby as sounds are added and subtracted and echo units employed. The cycle is repeated on “Burma Heights”, only with a faster tempo, more bubbly bassline, and whispered voice saying, “Life”, literally breathing humanity into the assemblage. The bassline to “Low-rez Skyline” is so similar, the track comes across more as a second movement to “Burma Heights” rather than a separate piece. But this is not necessarily a weakness. Rather, it’s an illustration of the immaculate, perfect control Taylor and Brown have over their hardware. It’s what makes it possible to sink into Snowboarding in Argentina and not emerge until the last track fades out.
Detractors could claim the album toes too closely to the line between forward-thinking electronica and bland new-age. But there are enough squelchy synth noises, enough dub influences, to stave off any potential dross. Of course, melody is not much of a concern here. Simple three-note patterns are standard, and that’s really about all Taylor and Brown need to hold things together. Only “l.o.9.v.e.” , so minimal it’s barely there at all, begins to tempt your patience. At “only” seven minutes, though, it’s one of the shorter tracks here, and it’s followed by the most aggressive. Making its first appearance on disc, the swirling “Evil Dub” is a crucial inclusion. With its massive synth pulses, it’s deeper, darker, and more mysterious than anything else on the album, yet it fits in quite well and doesn’t threaten to dominate. If anything, it provides a sort of climax point, making what comes before and after it even more poignant.
Snowboarding in Argentina has had a massive influence on electronic music, for sure. Any house music associated with the words “deep” or “minimal” certainly bears at the very least some indirect effect. Creators of trip-hop and ambient, and what came to be “intelligent dance music”, took notice, too. But the album remains something of a singular entity, like most landmark albums do. There’s still nothing quite like it.
On a bittersweet note, you have to wonder if part of the reason why Snowboarding in Argentina hasn’t dated is that electronic dance music hasn’t really striven forward over the last decade. In this case, the album’s status as a seminal release is at least in part by default. Yes, it would appear that electronica’s “golden age” is long gone. Whatever its historical context, though, Snowboarding in Argentina remains a unique, satisfying listen.