Riz Maslen is somewhat of an enigma in electronic music. For starters, she's not that electronic. In the past she's leaned toward creating her version of music on machines that make sound digitally as opposed to the traditional, natural wind and vibration methods. But even when she's twiddling with modern machines, there's an organic warmth (though not always an emotional warmth) to the sounds being created.
La Prochaine Fois, translated as The Next Time, is as organic as this modern world, which is to say that sometimes we're surrounded by nature and sometimes we're surrounded by what could only come from the human imagination. As much as it would pain any anti-cliche music critic to admit, Maslen seeks to take us on a journey with her ambient compositions. She also, as the obtuse French title suggests, wants to give us a peek into her own private existential dilemma. You may be better off ignoring her dilemma and letting the music take you on an existential journey of your own.
If you were to construct a scale mapping out ambient soundscapists and place the minimal, organic builds of Amp on one end and the highly digitized, programmed and remastered noodlings of The Orb on the other end, Neotropic would fall right in the middle: Maslen neither programs everything nor relies fully on natural sounds and atmospheric recording processes, and she has a knack for brevity -- a tricky endeavor in ambient music.
Granted, a track like "Closer to the Sun", with its pensive flute and suspenseful rhythm, is much more like a song than like a sound experiment, but there is still little front-to-back structure -- the song simply starts at one point and ends at another, as if you're walking into scenes and they end up walking out on you.
Which is the way much of La Prochaine Fois is constructed. Both "Sunflower Girl" and "Je Suis" build from a lilting acoustic guitar but no discernible beat other than what sound like clangs from somewhere outside (and in the case of "Je Suis", audible recordings of voices on the street). On "The Man Who Catches Clouds", a nervous guitar loop (by former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe, one of three songs on which he contributes) grounds a whirl of weightless synth notes and brass flourishes, all of which ends as suddenly as it began.
"Rote" is even more organic, opening with birds chirping, a car engine hum and what sounds to be either a jackhammer or a stick in bike spokes, all of which drops behind a desperate female moan that is punched like frantic notes on a keyboard. It's frightening, but there's little time for suspense before it's on to the next scene, which in this case is a sublime wave of sound called "Micro-Cosmic", which samples the beautifully depressed vocals of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and tiptoe piano parts, and metallic buzzes around them.
With nearly an entire collection of songs that stop short of admitting they're indeed songs, it seems odd to have the beat-laden spoken word of "Memories" close it out, but if taken as just another scene from urban environs, the panging and shuffle steps are as comfortable as all of the disparate noises that come together to make La Prochaine Fois the perfect soundtrack for when you want to go everywhere without leaving your own mind.
Unfortunately for Maslen, her inaugural effort at filmmaking, which comes on a separate CD-rom with the audio CD, does not have the same abstract appeal as the music. Taken from Maslen's travels around the world, the frenetic amalgamation deftly juxtaposes visual speed and recklessness with aural plaintiveness. Yet the footage itself is not far removed from home movies. What makes the music so fun -- its ability to leave enough unanswered that you can interpret the journey in any way you choose -- ends up being what makes the film so dull.
The one exception is the closing sequence, a grainy sneak-up on a patch of sunflowers on a sunny day that's rightfully set to the glow of "Sunflower Girl". On the album, "Sunflower Girl" gets the journey started; in the movie, it doesn't appear until the end. Perhaps Maslen should trust her musical instincts more the next time she's making a movie to fit her sublime soundtracks.