[5 July 2009]
Spyro isn’t one of the global throng of electronic music makers content with immortalising Akai MPCs and Roland drum machines. Instead, he is firmly of the digital generation, supplanting physical recording equipment with his own virtual equivalent. Whatever one’s misgivings about the migration of music-making online, this is a fact that’s hard not to congratulate.
Strapped with a degree in musical composition, the Venezuelan is something of a digital audio wizard, besting even alchemical grandees DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist with his technical innovation. As head honcho of Klang Labs, a nerve centre generating Virtual Studio Technology, he has gifted sound artists wielding laptops as musical instruments with downloadable plug-ins for madcap sonic manipulation. Such technology recreates the experience of manoeuvring physical synthesisers, samplers and other tools of the producer’s trade via virtual interfaces complete with “knobs” and “dials”. Klang’s catalogue includes the much blogged about “Vokko” stereo vocoder – the operative word being “stereo” – and “Daft Funk”, a glitch machine that is an obvious homage to the Parisian emperors of ersatz, Daft Punk. Spyro’s MySpace page (under the tag Montez) offers some demystification of these applications. “Fruity scratcher”, for instance, is broadcasted in a series of Spyro-narrated video demonstrations.
These incorporeal gadgets have found ample testing ground in Spyro’s myriad commissions providing mostly glitch-laden, pulsating disco-punk beats for short films and fashion shows. Refreshingly, Biodegradable, a 5-track EP released by dance label Yoruba, disposes with this all-too-fashionable Continental club shtick. Instead, it offers a montage of 1960s pastiche, oddball sampling, jazz and Latin licks, plus some electronic detritus thrown in for good measure. These various elements are yoked together by a rhythm section that, at times, seems to have a mind of its own. The result is a clutch of superbly stitched-together mini-operas.
It is apparent even on the first listen that Biodegradable resuscitates the jazz and sonic avant-garde of the 1960s. “Fast and Jazzy,” for instance, is characterised by the boisterous shuffle, bongo rhythms and triumphant brass snaps that are the natural ingredients of a French New Wave soundtrack. Of course, the EP is not entirely retrograde. The composer’s modus operandi ensures that virtual turntable trickery and sound manipulation get abundant airtime.
For all that, Biodegradable ends up being a breezy seaside listen that drips with tongue-in-cheek amour. In other words, it is music you want to “hang out, smoke, trip and make love to,” to borrow Spyro’s own phrase. One might also add to this line of verbs, “to dance to” on the strength of its rhythm section.
In appealing to as basic emotions as love and wanting to get high, Biodegradable is accessible in a way that’s surprising given that on paper, its eclecticism and exoticism suggests esotericism. The phlegmatic opener “Tonada Del Cabrestero”, for instance, is sustained by a disembodied vocal refrain lifted from a Venezuelan folk song and occasionally subjected to distortion and reverb. The slow-burning meter, which is joined by the controlled chaos of a drum machine as the track progresses, dissolves into a cathartic jazzy drum-and-bass denouement.
The mini-operatic “Sonidos Organicos” exhibits a similar schizophrenic disposition. Its sparse bumbling bass and tweeting flute give way to a sentimental cinematic interlude (with a rumble of voices in a haze of interference to boot). Then, after the brief restoration of bassline and flute, a pentatonic jazz interpolation provides the final stroke of colour.
These tracks make clear as day Spyro’s facility at arrangement. After all, to splice together disparate and even opposing elements without ever sounding unhinged, discordant or exhausting is no mean feat. Furthermore, the tunes succeed in being both improvisational and precisely executed.
Like “Sonidos Organicos”, “Mi Puerto Cabello” has its bundle of characters and scene changes. The curtain raiser is an extended ostinato over lumbering jazz drums. Interest is given by the sequential appearance of turntable gimmickry, thin-reed wails of woodwind, and snippets of choral and operatic vocals. These preliminaries are then followed by the first instance of melody provided by a harmonica. At this point, the track’s jazz legs have shifted ever so slightly onto country territory. An extended Jethro Tull-like flute sequence momentarily sustains this shift until the rhythm section atomises into manic broken beats.
Biodegradable is a rare achievement whose genius, despite the odds, lies in its ineffable accessibility. If one is looking for another reason why Spyro stands out from the throng, this would be it.