Thomas Brinkmann buries the parameters so deep you can barely feel them.
Thomas Brinkmann's What You Hear (Is What You Hear) is the process of elimination at work par excellence. As an electronic music artist, Brinkmann is already familiar with and has utilized the many styles that fall between techno and ambient. Minimalism/isolationism is nothing new to him, his listeners, or people who regularly check out releases from the Editions Mego label. What Brinkmann has done on his collaboration with Oren Ambarchi and now on What You Hear (Is What You Hear) is he's taken a deep, deep dive between minimalism and isolationism. The usual signposts are gone. Notions of climaxes and falling action are no longer there. Even the concept of a piece's beginning and ending feel like they're casually saying goodbye in the unfamiliar haze. What You Hear is sound without the shape. There are no artistic aspirations and no antsy need to communicate a theme. The Editions Mego website haughtily calls it "a strident development in the conceptual thinking of Brinkmann's solid career[.]" But there's probably something to that. What You Hear is purely machine-driven, underpinned by a feeling of detachment. If one of Thomas Brinkmann's goals was to put no personal stamp on this recording, then bravo.
What You Hear (Is What You Hear) is long -- 11 tracks at one hour and eight minutes. It comes to life with a blaring noise, something that sounds like a robot lion crossed with a foghorn, that sustains for 2:38. After "Ziegelrot ('brick-red')"'s rude wake-up call, Brinkmann switches on his hypno-ray. "Kadmiumgelb ('cadmium yellow')", which goes on for close to seven minutes, imbues the drone with a rhythmic pulse and foreshadows the album's disorienting sense of phasing. You can hear this trick plainly on "Purpurrot ('purple red')" should you choose to take the time to strap on a pair of headphones and follow the two patterns falling in and out of synchronization with each other for over eight minutes. "Mitisgrün ('Paris green')" applies the same idea to static, imposed over a boiling electronic sea bed. It is fascinating but, again, you need to strap yourself in for the seven-minute long haul. The left-right-left-right panning of "Agent Orange [smoke-grey on artwork]" will either give you bliss or a headache. Speaking for myself, the track's final three seconds and their ability to make you snap out of your spell make it all worth it.
If you aren't up for sonic tricks, there are chances to get lost in the ambient swells of What You Hear (Is What You Hear). "Indigoblau ('indigo-blue')", "Antimongelb ('antimoney yellow / Naples yellow')", and "Bleiweiss ('white lead')" all stay their course of gentle atmosphere. Like every other track on the album, they pick a sound early on and waiver from it so minimally that you don't know if you're hearing genuine change or not. Things will occur between a track's beginning and end, but they do not impact the track in a way that a noticeable enough change would impact a pop song. They exist as their own isolated moments, where you don't feel the ripples since you're in the dead center of the splash (or light tap) itself.
So it makes sense when the label describes this work as "a series of self perpetuating rhythms which exist more as sound structures than any kind of traditional sound forms". In other words, just (temporarily) cast aside whatever parameters you use to enjoy electronic music and let the ghost in the machine speak to you. It's not being subversive, it's not telling you to throw out your favorite EDM albums, and it's not trying to change your mind about the deep, dark drones vibrating under the mainstream. It's just trying to give you a big Om moment.