Ricardo Villalobos: Empirical House

Empirical House transfigures lounge and even elevator music through Villalobos's trademark lens of minimal techno, creating a study of interior space and social contexts.
Ricardo Villalobos
Empirical House

To call an album “background music” is seen almost unequivocally as a smear, an insinuation that the music in question is insubstantial, unremarkable, and bland. Chilean-born, German-raised electronic artist Ricardo Villalobos’s latest effort Empirical House is not itself background music, being too deep and nuanced to deserve such a label. The album is fascinated, however, by the aesthetics of lounge and even elevator music, transfiguring these through his trademark lens of minimal techno to create a study of interior space and social contexts.

Empirical House is comprised of four tracks, each roughly 12 minutes in length, which traverse the boundaries between listener and environment in different ways. Opener “Widodo” is the most overtly loungey of the bunch; vague, ambient marimbas drift in space like the idle stirring of ice in a glass, bringing to mind public yet anonymous milieus like a waiting room, hotel lobby, or posh restaurant. These are spaces where self-expression is stifled or at least policed from standing out too much, where occupants are conditioned and enjoined to remain self-contained and socially presentable.

Against this backdrop, Villalobos’s microhouse beats kick and push back subtly. Rather than merge seamlessly with their surrounding environment, there exists a degree of tension between the two elements. If the pleasant airiness of the marimbas and the stray, hushed snatches of passing conversation represent something external to the listener, the techno beats seem to stem from somewhere more personal. The thread between the two is a swift, jazzy bass line like something from a house band, though this too becomes deconstructed and transformed in the final quarter into a stuttering dance movement. Combined with an accumulation of heavier backbeats, it’s as though the interior self gradually seeps into and eclipses the social space as the track progresses.