Oval: Commers

Thrill Jockey

I would think I was too old (or too dumb?) to understand “glitch” music — that squiggly, grating sub-genre of electronica composed of the shortest, sharpest groupings of electronically manipulated (or even created) sounds — except that I love Mouse on Mars. Their newest album, Idiology, is my favorite of the year for its inventiveness and emotional depth and for the way it takes the interesting parts of the glitch aesthetic and melds them with a masterful sense of songcraft. Those qualities in particular distinguish MoM (along with the British electronic pioneer Aphex Twin) from most of their musical peers. Markus Popp, the German musician behind Oval, has contributed his own share of innovations to the world of experimental music over the course of four albums (the first in 1993) and a slew of EPs. As Commers proves, however, innovation does not necessarily yield work that will outlast its shock of the new.

Most of the tracks on the hour-long Commers — all of which are, like much of Oval’s work, untitled, in a move either conceptual or lazy — adhere to a fairly basic pattern: billowing synthesizers and sampled guitar tones create a soft, shifting background over which is laid a dense array of electronic squeals and squelches. The first sound on the album, a throbbing pulse of alarm, will have you looking out the window to make sure your car’s not being broken into. This sound continues in the background of the track, cradled by a wisp of melody, while an array of staticky noises is deployed to icy, oceanic effect. While some tracks, such as the sixth, do manage to build and release a modicum of tension, many float by without providing anything new or engaging; many listeners have in fact heard similar sounds the last time their modem connected with that surprisingly similar alarm-like tone and squall of fuzz. Once you’ve digested the uneasy listening of the technique itself, there’s little in the way of emotional engagement to carry the album.

Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing at all of value here. Like the color field paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, more goes on below the surface of Oval’s music than an initial impression would indicate. Some of the sounds processed in the blender of Commers are in themselves intensely interesting — individual moments strain toward beauty, sadness, anger — but these random moments are encased in an overall aesthetic that celebrates randomness within the context of stasis. Notes, chords, noises slip in and out of the sound field at seemingly unplanned intervals, sometimes even recurring as slight motifs; but the tracks themselves, and the album that contains them, don’t move forward. Commers instead spirals, circling round and round a black hole of pure noise without ever quite taking the final plunge.

What should be most engaging about Commers and similar electronic albums is the sense that a new type of music is being forged, from sources and with results that differ radically from the currently accepted norms of melody and rhythm. But of course the question of “What is music?” has been with us forever — it usefully deflates much electronica hyperbole to remember that the innovations of rock ‘n’ roll were once thought of as outside the realm of “real” music. Oval too will eventually be seen as the staid establishment, and sooner rather than later; the half-life of electronic innovation slips with every sale of ProTools computer software, which allows bedroom auteurs to make similar music with a flutter of the mouse. The sonic inventiveness of Commers looks almost quaint even now. Without that sheen of newness, there’s little here capable of carrying the weight of music itself.