Sascha Funke's latest is all sweetness, but goes a little gooey in the middle.
Sascha Funke has always tried to live up to his moniker, cutting some of the most straight-forward, rhythmically and melodically rewarding tracks in the tech-house canon. After moving from Kompakt to Bpitch Control, his releases grew a bit more expansive, but no more esoteric. Mango, his third album for the celebrated Berlin imprint, is about as sweetly accessible as its title -- he’s good with names -- but occasionally feels over-ripe, as if its been left out in the sun just a fraction too long.
In interviews, Funke has referred to the addition of live guitar as the most significant change in his working method for Mango, along with a more thorough manipulation of samples. Both moves would suggest increasing confidence, and it is on display right out of the gates on the title track. The use of stereo grabs attention immediately, with synth melodies and counter-melodies growing out of, and fusing back into, each other between the right and left channels. The effect on headphones is gorgeously fluid -- front and center on the dance floor I can imagine it more subliminal and more epic at the same time. After the first few minutes, the mix already consists of different rolling and swelling synths, standard deep bass, an active house beat enlivened with plenty of symbol, some percussive squelches, and an inspired synthetic tone that sounds like a large glass bell filled with shimmering water. Yet, a disco bass-line and mildly distorted electric guitar come in about half-way through, adding another layer. As guitar and bass fade into a brief, minimal coda, “Mango” emerges as an ideal opener, a piece of obsessively realized mood engineering, careful never to over-burden the ears or the emotions, and revealing its complexity only when you try to pick it apart.
Whether that’s the high-point of the album is an open question, but it's fairly representative of what Funke is trying to achieve. Guitar turns up on three or four tracks, the beats are uniformly strong, and shadowed by an extremely varied array of subordinate percussive details, including a few different mutations of that glassy water-bell sound, the best of which feels like your head is being scraped out by flutters of metallic light. That tone occurs on another stand-out, “Feathers”, which is the most retro-sounding track, dependent as it is on reverbed piano and organ-like sounds. But it also boasts the tightest rhythms on the album, utterly contemporary in feel, with the baldest of beats and a very “tech” bass-line recalling DJ Koze at the top of his game, especially as they are withheld to let the atmospherics breathe a bit, then brought back in with a sense of compulsive inevitability rather than strut or swagger.
Herr Funke‘s judgement, however, is not always so impeccable. The second track, “We Are Facing the Sun” scuppers some of the album’s initial momentum on a sci-fi synth duel between squeaky rayguns and wonky pitch-bends, just as “Feathers” is followed by the fine, but slightly over-long “Take a Chance With Me”, and “Summer Rain”, which is utterly anonymous aside from a bunch of tired storm samples. “Double-Checked” sounds like it’s going to be better, but is fatally marred by some exaggeratedly deep, monster movie-style spoken vocals. The right path is regained toward the end, though, with the seamless unit of “Lotre (Mehr Fleisch)” and “Chemin Des Figons”. The first combines blast-off filter sweeps, teaming acid synths, some more appealing mangled monster movie vocals, and a full-on percussive house of mirrors, to disorienting rewards. “Chemin Des Figons” proceeds from there, through dark and shifty metallic atmospheres, with hi-hat and an almost post-punk bass-line getting into a complex shuffle before the house beat drops, and a guitar line somewhere between ‘80s soundtrack music and ‘90s bedroom indie-rock, massive waves of cymbal, and surging, almost trancey, synths begin the ride out toward a resolution.
Said resolution turns out to be “The Fortune Cookie Symphony” and is the biggest disappointment on Mango. The backing track could stand on its own as a broody come-down, with the most tactile of the album’s many popping and bubbling percussion motifs conveying an anxiety about what the post-drug or dance reality will bring. It’s too bad such trite, actually sub-fortune cookie advice as “dream on dreamer”, “lose and learn”, and “feel that sweet pain over again” has been laid on top of it. The lesson is clear, though: engineers should stay out of English class, and stick to the pleasure of their machines. As for Herr Funke, he should simply remember his name, and next time we might get a classic album of blissfully glazed house, rather than two-thirds of one.