Ambient in the age of Prefuse 73 sees Orb collaborator Thomas Fehlmann working the clicks & cuts into impressive sonic smokescapes to achieve an album that struggles to attain solidity in a genre that sees too much ephemera.
Thomas Fehlmann's second album opens with an awkward start. The song "Goldhaar" is a less than enthusiastic bit of dub confection, but not to be so quickly dismissed. In the literary sense, there's something about its sound that implies the album has a palindrome for a structure, as if we're being led, song-by-song, into a mirror, through its surface, and beyond, to a peculiarly reversed beginning again. I mean to say that after the first song, Thomas Fehlmann never fails to keep our attention, once we realize what's going on.
For instance, "Prefab", the second track, is a cool swampy mix of toad-croaks, bubbling, hissing, laid down over a classic East-side hip-hop break. The spectrum of ambient music has changed a lot since the early days of the Orb, a group that Thomas Fehlmann has worked with quite a lot. Today we don't so much go for loose coagulations of found and manipulated sound, not in the same way that allowed the Orb to become a huge sensation in the '90s. More than ever, we want lots of beats and breaks. And luckily, the breaks are highlight features of this album. Fehlmann's sound has as much in common with Matthew Dear as Erick Sermon, to say nothing of Andrew Weatherhall, Deadbeat, or Dabrye, a producer who assists on three tracks here. The beat is king now. Nothing good has come for straight ambient since DJ Spooky. There's been no Future Sound of London. No Vangelis. No, today there is Prefuse73. There is Akufen. There is raggaeton and drillcore where there wasn't before. Laptops must now contend with Peaches. And all of these things must be accounted for by the contemporary electronic musician, because even in their absence, we feel them. Lowflow sits right next to Arular in the CD wheel in my player, for instance.
There's a nocturnal sound to any ambient that's easy to trace back to the clubs, lit by feathers and wine. Fehlmann has a bat's ear to pick out the finest beats from the dark mist of a studio, and make that into a lair for thousands of furry sounds and melodious guano, where children might come to play on Fridays. All these beats -- they're for the kid in you. Admit it. For your head to bob. For your milk to shake. This is good. There's nothing at all slum about an appreciation for the sweet beat that brings a village together. A beat is democratic. A beat is the sound of a community on its feet. A community of head-bobbers. I love Fehlmann's track "Slinky" for this reason. It's a real head-bobber. So is "Feat", strip-club material through and through -- a sexy pleather line on the synth is made for grinding, and the hi-hats and pompoms are for the sign your head makes when it's saying, "yes, yes, yes". "Hana" is one of the master's finest: with Iron Chef's control, Fehlmann modifies the great sushi-knife exactness of Pole's clicks and cuts (Stefan Betke even mastered this album) with the tactile and imprecise sonic marinate of classic Autechre. The result is a plate of something glassy laid over rubble.
Ambient music, house music, dub... Fehlmann's interested in all of it, whatever it was you remember hearing on the days off from trainspotting. All it lacks is motivation. There's a moral problem with house music, in that its roots in transcendental hedonism leave little room for any other interpretation. House music, great house music that is, gets respect only for being un-dull. Instead of great, all we expect from house is for it to be un-dull. And at times Lowflow floats just above the circuit quality of your basic house music white labels, the kind your Tuesday night DJ spins from 10pm 'til closing time in the chill-out room at the finer Soho-inspired restaurant on the most trendy hill street in your bad city. It could be that album, but it isn't. It isn't nearly so lame as that.
At its most lame, this is creamy white label house music -- the stuff you save, not the gutless, candy-coated stuff most people get off on, but the stuff you save for your friends, for after-hours, and most of all, for yourself. Fehlmann's version of chill-out, even with thumpier beats, isn't about to disturb the tranquility of a pink martini or the locks of your rococo haircut. Nevertheless, to hear Lowflow in a bar or club would sound just far-fetched enough to confuse, scare, and perhaps even arouse customers, probably enough for them to leave in search of cleaner surfaces. Fehlmann's music is almost banal enough to call banal. But there's a sonic curiosity that brightens his most generic tracks. The chill-out record is an odd thing to master, for it so easily turns to wallpaper. But that's no reason to dismiss it outright. Fehlmann has turned chill-out into something more poetic than casual, and there are some incredible moments.
"Alice Springs", the grimiest track, sounds like ambient music waiting for a home on a Crime Mob CD -- crunk ambient. With its hypnotic, syrupy synth loop, moaning and crashing, moaning and crashing, and generally making an altogether hot ruckus -- "Alice Spring" is the best piece on the album, the pale magma within the Lowflow as it's pictured by Raymond Pettibon on the cover. As we travel out in either direction from this song, the beats, the energy, and the vitality begin to fractal and flake, until the sounds shrink, mellow, and break apart, as they do in "Goldhaar", and "Fellmaus", the last song on the album. By the time you hear it, might as well be the first song reprised. There's putty of a difference between the two.
I wouldn't say Lowflow is on point with Luke Vibert's great retro-fitted acid house classic YosepH, but it comes close. Mighty close. The flaw isn't the music, but the roots of the music. Vibert's obsession with acid carries with it the more punkish anarchy of that club offshoot, which never quite acquired the same popular force as straight old house music. Acid was, as it always has been, for the freaks of the scene. Fehlmann has condensed the techno '90s into 13 songs, and does a polished-up job making that era (which may have lasted as long as to the dawn of techno terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001) sound like not such a bad place after all. Yes, it was quite vacuous in its gallantry and poses, its glow-sticks and soothers and sparkle makeup and lonely afternoons burning off the last of the ecstasy high with a weird jaw-ache and sexual depression. But all said, it was, and remains, great electronic music.