Back in the ’90s and the early 2000s, Oval’s Markus Popp was the king of experimental, process-dominated electronica. Not simply content to appeal to the IDM base, but too enamored with melody to reach Akira Rebelais-levels of opacity, Popp combined the best of both worlds, dedicating his career to getting methodology and aesthetics to line up. But although his goal remained consistent, the specific approaches he took on each of his records were beautifully distinct. By literally mutilating an Aphex Twin CD for Systemisch (1994), Oval retranslated the awesome anonymity of 1960s minimalism. A year later on the seminal 94 Diskont, the shards of broken CDs cohered into actual songs, breathtaking in their complexity and impossible accessibility, while Dok (1998) was a vaporous record of bells recorded around the world.
By the time he dropped two similar albums of messy yet sneakily melodious digital shrapnel (on proprietary software), the Oval project was practically a philosophy course on art and aesthetics, posing questions about the nature of music itself. What is it, in actuality? Is it the sound, or the medium, or the sound of the medium? If we break the medium, what happens to the music? Does anything open up when we’ve destroyed it? Have we reached an era in which anyone could conceivably make experimental music this way? (The answer to the last question, by the way, is no — do not try putting a CD in the microwave.) As ingenious and beautiful as Oval was during its initial run, what made it special was that it existed so outside the current electronic orbit as to sound less ahead of its time than out of time completely; Popp’s oft-quoted sentiment that he didn’t listen to any popular music seemed quite believable. In the season of grunge and endless copycatting, Oval was a truly experimental artist, who wrote his own playbook and expanded vistas for all kinds of musicians.
Oval had the advantage of making music while electronica was relatively inchoate. But the years between Ovalcommers (2001) and his surprising reentrance with the Oh EP and the O double-album were the Indian summer of electronic and experimental music, both of which mushroomed and more or less entered the mainstream during that period. It’s naïve to think that everything’s been done (much less done to hell), but suffice it to say that the landscape is a quite different place than the one Oval left behind. This puts him in an interesting spot. His return is a blessing for those who thought he departed too soon, yet how feasible is it to maintain a reputation as a brilliant trailblazer when there seem to be so few trails left to blaze? Should originality be the goal at all?
From the evidence, Oval doesn’t think so. Rather than reinvent the wheel, he spun the music left in his wake into his own creation that still feels pretty familiar. Brass tacks: O is 70 tracks of winsome electro-acoustic exploration, with only the minutest variations between them, closest in spirit to Japanese tiny-music artists like Lullatone and Piana. It is the sound of guitar strings slit, snapped, and forcefully plucked in empty space, accompanied by light drones, squiggles, and sometimes — shockingly — an acoustic drummer who must’ve taken a wrong turn on the way to the Rock Band tourney. The best description of the sound actually appears on the cover art of companion EP Oh: a dozen chickadees on an electric guitar, their little claws pulling at the strings as they walk all over it. The album is divided by disc into 20 regular tracks and 50 “ringtones”, all processed by software someone else once wrote and put on a shelf for purchase. He’s a sly curmudgeon, that one. I can hear him griping, “You kids with your iPhones” as the 38th ringtone chimes lazily in one ear and out the other.
Indeed, little of the record is very sticky. I’m not a psychic, but I contend that O doesn’t have the je ne sais quoi flavor of a classic in the works. At 70 tracks, O is bloated, and the differences between songs and discs are so slight as to not much matter, though they do exist. For instance, the ringtones don’t stretch out as openly as the main tracks; they announce their presence and stay put, as ringtones do, while the songs on disc one are more plaintive and measured. And I just don’t find the sound very engaging. The barrage of plucking tends to wear on the ears and grate after long listens, and the ratio of noise to music to open space seems off, somehow. After a while, each track starts to sound like single strands yanked from the tapestries of Ovalprocess and Ovalcommers, writhing in an empty petri dish. The drums only provide an extra layer of data to process. Monotonous at best, annoying at worst, they shuffle through the music without a sense of confidence, simultaneously fighting against it and getting winded in an effort to keep up with it.
The big question among the others will assuredly be this: Does O sound like Oval? Fans will be looking for artistic integrity and continuity, but that isn’t really fair. Though he’s best associated with CD-skip technology, Oval is more protean than we’ve given him credit for, and O is his new face. That said, I can find three similarities that connect this record to the others in his catalogue, and they’re all important. First, it’s audacious. However they actually worked, 70 tracks in anything other than a retrospective takes guts or a complete dismissal of cultural norms, and in the past he has demonstrated both. Second, the prismatic beauty that elevated 94 Diskont above a simple process record appears again here, intermittently. The very first track “Panorama” gets the proportions exactly right, approximating an illuminated, breathing Japanese garden I’d want to live inside. While I can’t say the same about the great majority of O, it does have a strange way of nullifying everything around it, positioning itself at the center of our universe. This is the third way we can know it as the work of Oval. For the briefest of moments, it’s the only music there is.