Thomas Fehlmann: Lowflow

Lee Henderson

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


Label: Plug Research
US Release Date: 2004-11-30
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone can undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.