Oh, hindsight. When µ-Ziq’s last album, Bilious Paths, came out four years ago, I found myself decrying its apparent focus on heavy processing and spastic rhythmic overload. µ-Ziq’s Mike Paradinas had always distinguished himself from his contemporaries among the ’90s IDM pioneers on the strength of his melodies, layered and majestic, whereas the new album buried them in rapid drum edits and noisy effects tweaking. Suddenly Paradinas seemed to be edging into the DSP-breakcore oeuvre already well tracked by the likes of Hrvatski and Venetian Snares, perhaps fittingly both signed to Paradinas’ own Planet-µ label. Hardly a concession to pop success, given the decidedly cult popularity of such cataclysmic percussion, but it seemed an odd bit of band-wagoning, especially considering that the sell-by date of the DSP-era seemed to be rapidly approaching. Digital signal processing, mainstay of the turn-of-the-century crop of new electronic producers like Kid 606 bent on breaking their loops as completely as possible, wasn’t nearly as fresh and exhilarating as it once was, and suspicions that it was more or less a clever gimmick were gaining weight.
Within a couple years, though, Bilious Paths seemed less a late-race genre-jump and more simply one of many strong statements of a vibrant era of electronic music. What’s more, Paradinas’ signature melodies were by no means gone, just simplified slightly and worked tightly into his ever-shifting weave of fractured snare rushes, spastic sampling, and jolts of noise and unexpected syncopation. Surely, musical stasis would have been much more regrettable than a (borrowed) new direction that took some getting used to.
The latest µ-Ziq effort, Duntisbourne Abbots Soulmate Devastation Technique (I have to wonder about the derivation of that title, and the macabrely surreal motor accident in the art) further drives this point home. Here we have it: a full-fledged return to melodic focus, drums scaled back into mainly lock-step loops that serve as a framework for woozy synth arrangements — that now feel entirely oversimplified and underwhelming. It doesn’t help that these melodies rarely possess the clarity or elegance of older µ-Ziq arrangements, instead settling on queasy, slippery detuning and dissonance. The notes sit against eachother uneasily, reverb washing each phrase over the next in stomach-turning waves, as warbled snatches of voice cough and gibber with obscure menace. 1999’s The Royal Astronomy seemed to capture a sort of ersatz, mechanical utopia; Duntisbourne Abbots… is a distinctly organic sort of dystopia, a soundtrack for debilitating hang-overs, burst appendixes, and feverish dreams of oozing, animate organs sloshing together. Ultimately, the album comes off like an extensive exploration of the sensation of nausea.
This doesn’t exactly make for a comfortable listening experience. Now, uncomfortable music can certainly have its place (consider claustrophobic Aphex Twin classic “Ventolin”), but here the feeling is almost unbroken and without respite. That is not to say that the disc is not entirely without its pleasures. Tracks like “Eggshell” present quintessential µ-Ziq synth melodies with an unadorned grace, recalling early work like Tango n’ Vectif, and “Rise of the Salmon” actually makes excellent use of its simplified percussion to lend an insistent momentum to its symphony of squelching analogue melodies. These moments, however, are relatively few, and padded out with tracks that tend more towards dull oversimplification, or unpleasantness, or often both.
There will always exist a niche for “difficult” music, music that pushes at various conventions and beyond. Usually when we talk about difficult music, it’s in reference to harsh noise, or minimal drone, or particularly vicious breakcore. Paradinas actually has done something interesting with this album, despite — well, actually because of — its unpleasantness. Duntisbourne Abbots… has the distinction of being the only difficult album I can think of defined not by sensory overload or abstraction, but by intelligible melodies that just refuse to be palatable, to sit properly in the gut for digestion. There’s a sort of innovation in that, but it still can’t make me want to listen.