Ellen Allien


(Bptich Control; 2008)

By Mark Abraham | 28 May 2008

With pop groups like Animal Collective functioning as bridges between the terrain of out and pop, 2008 means calling something “out” is kind of like fucking the elephant in the room. As in, I’ve argued in the past that what makes, say, Machine Gun good is what makes Spice good; in the future I hope it becomes rote and onanistic to point that out. Sool sort of vocalizes the lack of necessity for such an argument, and when Allien churns the word “out” into all of its component techno butters to end her album it seems like she’s saying two things: 1) this is the most complicated and arms-length music she’s made but 2) whatever. It’s still just dance music, out or in. Plus her music, for all of it’s immediate qualities, has always been a bit on the out side in any case.

Even so: when I reviewed AGF’s Words are Missing I pointed out that some of the tracks at least were “dance music, sort of.” Sool being an Allien/AGF concoction may perturb fans of Berlinette (2003) or Thrills (2005) or Orchestra of Bubbles (2006); Greie-Fuchs takes the punchline of the vocal take of Berlinette’s “Trashscapes,” pestles it dry, and rips it to shreds. The vacant funk of Allien’s music is still just as cold as the tundra; Greie-Fuch’s helps her lobotomize it into noise-as-art. Take “Ondu,” which sounds like a gorgeous techno update of Tom Zé’s “Toc”; the spare musical parts that flit in and out form un-tailed melodies that work in tandem but not necessarily together, creating an effect both nauseous and euphoric. Out and in. Hell: “MM” may sound like a tracheotomy fellating a djembe, and that’s basically all words are anyway, right? Throat consonants and misplaced wind running through teeth. Sequence that shit the right way and voila: linguistics’ newest dance craze. Coherent strings of syllables or no, we understand the plot.

A lot of the music on Sool works like that, folding stray tatters together like flint and theremins and whispers naturally make the best chords. “Bim”—featuring an unimaginably cool rendering of “bim, bam, boom” as its hook—is robots playing prog and post-rock, throwing a drum machine inside an abandoned car factory and making that fucker sing. If Berlinette pulled a shawl of urban nightmares over our eyes to convince us the digital age was scary, Sool is the actual world and movement and thoughts of the ghosts in the machine—no longer a shadow, they strangle the life out of words themselves. But funky like.

Better, Allien maintains the path she forged on Orchestra of Bubbles by attempting to non-techno sequence a techno album. Her slow-jams really gain headspace with Greie-Fuchs’s help; not simply content to make chill-out tracks, Allien uses Sool’s quieter moments to explore all kinds of sonic play. “Zauber” is the best jazz track this year, but it creeps and uncurls beneath those reed samples with conviction; it’s where we all wish Herbie Hancock had actually gone. “Frieda” uses Bill Frisell-like guitar to underpin a beautiful vocal track—the only one on Sool where words aren’t simply part of the palette—and while, yeah, the lyrics start with “you are my sun” or whatever, the actual momentum of the track is built through a whole variety of stuff that doesn’t sound anything like the sun. Whatever the sun sounds like.

“Elphine” is one of those wonderfully funky tracks that slips just enough to sound vaguely out of time. I love that trick, especially with a bass line as jugular as this one. Overtop Allien substitutes her typical wonderful synth leads with a sliced vocal—in fact, the most obvious difference between this and Orchestra of Bubbles may well be that if the former treated vocal samples like rhythmic accents, this treats them like the main course (like parts of Berlinette), but also it treats rhythm and melody like they’re the same thing. “Sprung” is another good example: the percussion is fairly straightforward so it’s the cutting melody that adds sway, at least early on.

If it weren’t for the nominally contentious Thrills (though, from my vantage: lurve) I’d just say that by this point you should simply buy whatever post-_Berlinette_ material Allien is selling. She’s easily one of the most interesting and versatile artists working today and in a electronic dance music world dominated by Kompakt (still) and Villalobos (justifiably, but it’s the same tricks with production over and over) most artists who do fall outside the lines are either pop enthusiasts or sacrifice the dance in favor of concept. Which: none of these are bad, but Allien has managed to furrow inside a unique and engaging style she pioneered that makes concessions to dance floors and headspace. Given the speed with which electronic music shifts and mutates her steadfast awesomeness could probably net her a lifetime achievement award.