Paper Tigers may not be the revelation that Vocalcity was, but its quiet, complex experiments show an artist extremely serious about his work
I've been rethinking my evaluation of Luomo's new CD since the first few spins, and the reason is I've realized the extent to which his echoing, fractured dub compositions echo another tightly-regulated musical form, that of the classical sonata. It's all done so skillfully, packaged so unobtrusively in Luomo's signature stuttering echo, you can miss it on the first, or seventh, listen; but this rigorously constructed music has a great deal of depth, and a continuing appeal.
Vladislav Delay, a.k.a. Luomo, must be coming up on 30, but he continues to make music on the forward edge of the electronica spectrum with his heavy, cut-to-pieces dub. All the fuss over the re-release of Vocalcity last year -- you know, words like “seminal", phrases like “father of minimalism” bandied about by the press willy-nilly -- left his second album, The Present Lover, feeling something like a postscript rather than a step forward. Paper Tigers feels like the third in a series; moving in a certain direction in miniscule steps, it’s a big sister to his previous album and, though it’s a perfectly accomplished piece of electronica, leaves the listener wondering just what this musician could do if he ever returns to the paradigm-breaking mindset of his debut.
But here's the thing: though this isn't true for all his songs, the best tracks conform to this very classical sonata form, and it brings a whole new structure to an otherwise very minimal aesthetic. Sonata form flows from exposition (in which the primary and secondary themes are stated) to development (in which thematic material is broken apart, its component elements expanded and dealt with individually) to recapitulation (the final repetition of the theme, altered slightly to mark the end of the piece. A song like "The Tease Is Over" follows this model remarkably closely: the jazzy, piano-accompanied theme is stated once before it begins to splinter into components, echoing bits taken one by one and developed into a strange, deep, and quite different sonic atmosphere.
This concern with developing and stripping away is continued across tracks, too, demonstrating the importance of tracking to the experience of listening to this kind of music. But from the outset, "Really Don't Mind" takes opening cut "Paper Tigers" as jumping-off point: where the first track took five minutes to coalesce into a coherent statement of minimal techno, "Really Don't Mind" begins with the previous track's fractured female vocal and quickly develops them into a full melody. The expansive nature of the tracks allow enormous changes of feeling/emotion/theme midway, as at five and a half minutes in here; Luomo takes the dub to the next level, demonstrating the construction of a great dub track from first principles. The same thing happens on "Wanna Tell", at the same point; the beat changes, and things become much sparser, even incorporating short breaks with no sound. Throughout, whether it's broken into shards or laying out a slinky melody, Johanna Iivanainen's vocals provide coherence.
Luomo's success without vocals is less consistent: while "Dirt Me" fizzles and sputters in and out of regularity, "Cowgirl" fails to hold as much of the listener's interest. But the artist's less concerned with variety and more with atmosphere and small-scale experiments of form; and it's paid off with an entirely consistent record that doesn't reach too far out-of-genre.
Luomo, like Hans-Peter Lindstrom (the other artist electronica release receiving critical praise recently), widens the appeal of a dance genre by mining a vein of attractive melody, unafraid of dance music's ability to please the ear. Luomo's the more challenging artist, though, and he's doing something more academic on his best tracks. Paper Tigers may not be the revelation that Vocalcity was, but its quiet, complex experiments show an artist extremely serious about his work. It's an added bonus that it's a splintering, disorienting treat to listen to, as well.