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Feeding the Machine: Emptyset Take a Bold Sonic Move with 'Blossoms'

Photo: Camille Blake / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records

Experimental electronic duo Emptyset make unrelenting noise on their latest project, Blossoms.


Thrill Jockey

11 October 2019

Emptyset thrive on musical innovation, in spite of – or because of – the sometimes head-scratching and polarizing reactions the results produce. Beginning a decade ago with their self-titled debut album, the British duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas seem more interested in the process and the equipment required to make the music than the actual music itself. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Recordings that sound more fitting in a sound laboratory than a car stereo or dancefloor can result in unique pleasures, as long as the listeners know what they're in for.

With Blossoms, Ginzburg and Purgas go full egghead with the process, exploring sound production in ways they'd only previously begun to tap into. Blossoms was created with a "machine learning system" that "was developed through extensive audio training, a process of seeding a software model with a sonic knowledge base of material to learn an predict from". Emptyset used their existing material as well as hours of improvised recordings using wood, metal, and drum skins, feeding the sounds into the system. That all amounts to high-level sampling. The final product essentially sounds like what could have begun life as "natural" sounds that have been manipulated so many times over that they've been rendered virtually unrecognizable. An acquired taste, for sure.

Blossoms crashes down from the very beginning with the pummeling, unrelenting sounds of "Petal", as if a throttling machine is grinding down the very sounds it's taking in. That continues through the metallic wincing of the title track and into the muffled, almost aquatic sonic manipulations of "Bloom". With the modern, techno-centric machinations at work here, Blossoms is a uniquely challenging listening experience. It's not one to be confused with anything resembling common ambient soundscapes. It could be called a soundscape, but one that seems more claustrophobic and menacing than relaxing and stress-reducing.

During the research process for Blossoms, the members of Emptyset have kept their schedules busy. Ginzburg has released solo albums and helped run multiple record labels. Meanwhile, Purgas spoke at a Moog synthesizer symposium and helped curate the Wysing Arts Centre's annual music festival. Emptyset are a duo that prosper within a variety of artistic endeavors. The sounds heard on Blossoms are a result not only of the sounds fed into the machine learning system but also of the ancillary musical activities in which Ginzburg and Purgas are involved.

Despite the occasionally repetitious nature of the ten songs on Blossoms, there is a bit of ebb and flow to the music. "Blade" provides a slight respite that can almost be considered an airy, meditative experience. "Axil", to some extent, is also a less tense soundscape as it occasionally relents and whatever edges are present seem to be dulled down when compared to the album's more intense moments.

Blossoms works tremendously well as a bold sonic experiment and even a proof of concept for whatever madness Empyset is attempting. As long as they keep feeding different sounds into their system, plenty of oddly engaging weirdness will emerge.


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