Some phenomena are undetectable except for the impact they have on their environment. Black holes, for instance, are by definition invisible, but their existence can be inferred by the total absence of light within their bounds. Tornadoes, too, are not directly observable per se; instead, one merely sees the dust, gas, and debris caught in their vortex. Listening to Popp, the latest release by glitch pioneers Oval (now mostly just a vehicle for Markus Popp), one gets the sense that a similar phenomenon is afoot here. This is an album composed of synthetic detritus, scraps of sound that whir and buzz in what at first sounds like chaos. As you spend more time with it, however, you come to perceive patterns among the movements. The overcrowded surface conceals, but also indicates, powerful currents below that operate by their own internal logic, shaping what ultimately amounts to an intricate and satisfying listening experience.
If Popp is a tornado, it is one that barrels through music archives where every pitch-altered vocal sample from the past ten years is filed away, shredding them into bite-size units before carrying them along in its path. The album’s monosyllabic and largely abstract song titles — such as “ai”, “fu”, “sa”, and “ve” — are indicative of its hyperactive metabolic rate, breaking everything down into digits as numerous and minuscule as pixels on a computer screen. There are vocals here, or at least bits that sound like vocals, but they have been disintegrated and digitized into abstraction. Other song titles, like “id”, “re”, and most notably, “my”, drift closer towards meaningfulness and actual representational language. Mostly, though, the thesis of Popp lies not in any direct transmission of meaning, but in the patterns that emerge among the churning sonic debris.
The album walks a line between playful and serious. It is frenetic and hyperactive yet solitary and contained, like playing a game of ping pong (or maybe just Pong) against oneself. Indeed, the popping, pitter-pattering texture of “my” evokes the strangely satisfying sound of a ball hitting a hard surface. In the way that a night spent alone in the dark on one’s laptop might produce a kind of addled, stimulated solitude, an asocial euphoria, Markus Popp searches paradoxically for limitlessness within a set of confines and parameters. It is in the tension created between boundaries and expansiveness that the album achieves its high.
During its first half, Popp sounds like it might end up being one of those conceptually and sonically intriguing albums that nonetheless fails to make an impact due to a lack of pathos and variation. After all, any given thirty-second snippet taken from the first five tracks would serve as a pretty good indicator for the rest. This creates a static, stationary dynamic, like observing a piece in a museum. Things start to change around “lo”, however, which introduces heavier, more aggressive drums that sound like something out of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…... Popp continues to accumulate heaviness as it progresses, culminating in the highlight “mo”, which balances twinkling, Exorcist-like bells with propulsive beats and an abstracted but oddly warm vocal sample.
By the time Oval leaves us with “ve”, one is left with the remnants of a surprisingly visceral, if private, experience. “ve” is the sound of sunlight entering again through the curtains, bringing to a close a solitary evening spent in the digital light of a computer screen. While withdrawal of this type is often frowned upon in Western society, which gluts itself on personalized technology while also remaining deeply suspicious of it, Oval suggests that such experiences can be regenerative, that they can be sources of energy that help us ultimately to return to the world. In the end, Popp goes beyond the cerebral and scattered surface that it first projects to become something far more affirming, revelatory, and perhaps even joyful.