The album name says it all. Quit chitchatting and dance. But it’s not quite that simple when Blah Blah Blah offers more than tickles to the hips. That’s just what we should expect from Italian émigrés to London Marco Donato and Federico Marton, whose brand of techno-minimalism (if you can even call it that) harbours many incongruent surprises that you might not immediately think to jig to. If it’s not some new age flourish or doggerel in German, then it’s an operatic sample.
Blah Blah Blah, the Italoboyz’ most complete work since their arrival on the global stage in 2002, has them venturing forth, like many contemporaneous electronic outfits, from the hermetic world of samplers and drum machines to the searing jungle of organic instruments. (In an interview, Donato mentioned that he was picking up the bass guitar, but, alas, his fledgling skills didn’t make the cut this time round). The result is an unlikely cohesive mix of world music, techno, jazz, blues, and modern classical, all revelling under the aegis of deep house. Given its eclecticism, the album finds its glue less in how it sounds, than in the method by which the Boyz produced it. Above all, unlike anything else they’ve done, it’s about melody rather than rhythm, with the suppleness of composition trumping the regimentation of the metre.
It should be made clear that the Boyz haven’t produced an album that merely co-opts live instruments for the sake of upping its melodic quotient. Rather, the dance aspect assumes a support role to the orchestrations provided by (nameless) session musicians who were instructed to play anything they wanted under a genre elected by the Boyz. After netting the good bits, Donato and Marton cobbled together extended meditations, each impelled by a single theme. As the meditations progress on listening, their themes are teased apart and reconstructed into versions, which are then weaved together — sometimes capriciously — to conjure a loose feel for the original jam sessions.
With its disco beat, opener “Where Is London” sounds like a new entry in the Hooked on Classics series if you replaced Beethoven with the kind of expansions into world music that Nitin Sawhney would approve of. The resulting 11-plus-minute set rolls out permutations of an Arabic theme, with transitions between these variations so seamless you’re bound to believe the piece was recorded live. But that’s not all. From standard piano strings, the Boyz extracted a plucked sound that oscillates between the silk-like quality of a harp, the spicy tenor of the balalaika, and the lower registers of a harpsichord. For an album opener, it’s certainly hard to make more of an impression when you’ve emulated John Cage.
I do have one misgiving, though. What is with the track’s title? Is the duo suggesting with the piece’s exoticism that London or the idea of it has been lost in the melting pot that is contemporary London? If so, then it’s mighty strange coming from two Italians.
The Boyz revisit the Orient later on in the album with “L’Anagramme”. But this time the track, with its dreary pedal-flushed piano and moist subterranean air, rings like something concocted by Enigma’s Michael Cretu were he to team up with Lang Lang. There is little obvious structure here, but that is no bad thing. For “L’Anagramme” would be a pleasant neoclassical piano soundtrack propelled by a tinny drum beat if it weren’t for some random male ramblings in French a la Enigma to give it a frivolous stroke of avant-garde. Along similar lines, “Oh Mio Dio” is a curious number that sounds like several piano tunes yoked together over a disco beat. The emphasis is on the lower registers of the keyboard, and from thunderous rumblings wafts a trace of the blues. It’s like a meeting of minds between Rachmaninoff and Professor Longhair. There’s simply nothing else like it.
The Boyz don’t always get it right. “Chinese” starts off well enough with a sustained two-chord ostinato akin to that on The Nutcracker Suite’s “Chinese Tea”, while a piano chimes away in a pentatonic cloud. But the spanner in the works is the incessant loop of a female vocalist saying: “I don’t speak Chinese”. Listen to it and you too will feel like you’re being subjected to some crackpot hypnosis. Maybe it would have worked better had the words “Blah blah blah” been used instead.
Thankfully, “Edo Breiss” and “Bahia” offer plenty of respite from such torment with their insouciant Marc Moulin-meets-St Germain cool. The album concludes with the Boyz stripping themselves entirely of studio effects with what sounds like a live recording of “The Pink Unicorn”. Again, the piano in all its delicate glory is prima donna, and again we have less a dance track than a virtuoso display of neoclassical composition fit for a celluloid drama replete with roaring drums. Who knew that Italoboyz, as peddlers of what’s usually up-to-the-minute, could end their debut LP with the stamp of Yanni?
It’s evident that what Italoboyz wanted to achieve with Blah Blah Blah was something larger than the sum of their catalogue thus far. It goes so far as to wipe the slate clean, leaving only a few water rings in the form of near anonymous techno track “Techno Tower” and a congenital allergy to ordinariness. Yet what appeals most about Blah Blah Blah is that it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint its place in history. The corollary of such neutrality is that it’s unlikely to suffer the weathervane that is their fickle blah-blah-blah audience.