Austrian experimentalists Radian have quite a unique specialty. They can take various unmusical elements, process them through different studio toys, and stitch them all together in a way that resembles not only pieces of music but music that can sound simultaneously clinical and suspenseful. Between the smatterings of tape hiss, electronic clicks, struck blunt objects, and a drum kit that can sound like a pile of cardboard boxes tumbling over, the trio of Martin Brandlmayr, Martin Siewert, and John Norman have long known how to mix the perfect combination of ghostly tones and odd noises.
Listen to their latest album, Distorted Rooms, just once, and it will sound too much like a flailing kitchen sink experiment. But if you place just a little faith in Radian, the simple grooves and arcane sounds will start to coalesce into a musical style that, while identifiable, works like hell to avoid categorization. Being on the Thrill Jockey label, comparisons to American post-rock bands are not out of place. But then you’d have to consider the glitch and industrial influences and the small but palatable acknowledgments of Aphex Twin and Paul Lansky. So mash that all together, and that’s the style with Radian.
Not only is Distorted Rooms the first Radian LP to be released since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the first Radian release in seven years. This is the longest gap between their releases, so Distorted Rooms comes with the added weight of expectation and curiosity. What did these guys do with their extra time? Will the spare time spent on the music enhance the album overall, or will it all just get weighed down with ambition? To answer the first question, the long gestation period could have been purely a public health concern.
As to the other point, Distorted Rooms is not the lumbering product of too many cooks crammed in one kitchen. Instead, it walks the line perfectly between control and chaos, music and racket. Some of it sounds downright frightening when you get right down to it, like the soundtrack to a graphically psychological thriller. Where past releases like Juxtaposition delighted in the gleeful experimentation of sounds, Distorted Rooms finds Radian honing and sharpening those sounds to help you feel, in turn, serenity and panic.
Never ones to overplay their hand, Radian offer only six new tracks at a lean 38 minutes. And though the tracks are lengthy, they spend little time floundering or setting the scene. Most of the time, Distorted Rooms finds Radian getting right to the point, give or take a few moments. “Cold Suns” starts the record in a manner reflective of its title: bright yet muted. Stuttering guitar tones, electronic whirring, scattershot drumming, and a distorted voice make up the track’s foundation, making for an oddly convincing album opener.
“C at the Gates” and “Cicada” glide along with even less of a safety net, but “Skyskryp12” and “Stak” are, debatably, the highlights. “Skyskryp12”, in particular, is a smorgasbord of studio trickery dressed up as music, throwing one sound after another at the listener while never losing the beat. “Stak” has an infectious beat all its own, a danceable splice of playful samples and clipped percussion. “S at the Gates” is the falling action at the end, letting Radian’s listeners down in a not-so-gentle fashion as grinding metal rubs against ominous pedal tones.
It can be a challenge to chart change in experimental and avant-garde music. If it all sounds like pointless clamor to you, then you wouldn’t be able to tell if an artist, or the genre in general, were actually making progress or just repeatedly giving you the same thing. With Distorted Rooms, Radian make the task a little easier. Spend enough time with it, and you will begin to sense the adjustments made to this musical niche right before your ears. In a continually overly crowded musical world, it’s a rare thing to witness.