(Thrill Jockey; 2010)
By Conrad Amenta | 17 September 2010
When I consider this long-gestating work from German glitch generator Markus Popp I see two threads of discussion: that this kind of record seems a little bit out of touch with the times, and that if anyone’s entitled to make it, it’s Popp. As a 1990’s experimenter, someone who contributed in a vital way to the discussion of how media and content interact and affect one another, Popp is uniquely attenuated to make what is essentially a record of anti-formalist clangs and beeps. He does it well, though why he felt it was still necessary in 2010 is a total mystery.
As in literature, experimental anti-formalism can’t help but sound like a bit of an anachronism these days: difficult in a way that was perhaps once essential, not so much unconventional as anti-convention, flying in the face of whatever this thing is now that we’re still trying to quantify—hysterical realism, or new sincerity, or post-post-modernism. Arcade Fire release an album that uses the suburbs as their central metaphor, and it actually resonates with listeners; Jonathan Franzen writes another tome of a Great American Novel about the fractured nuclear family and not only are people actually reading and liking the damn thing, they find it useful. It seems like we’re ready to feel invested in forms and systems again, ready to reconstitute rather than undermine our discussions. Perhaps with the record industry impotent to slow its crumble we no longer feel the same urgency to critique power and control as we once did.
Which is to say that enjoyment doesn’t always come into the discussion when we consider these old challenges. O is a two disc set featuring almost 70 tracks around a minute or two in length. Most songs sound like an electric guitar tortured to squealing, appealingly percussive if noncommittal in length, and there are some drums simulated to near authenticity, which would be almost mistakably organic if their patterns were not inhumanly precise. And, like this year’s Oh! EP, there are moments when melody and rhythm seem to accidentally segue into a transcendent, driving theme before it’s gone. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to hold any particular section of O in one’s head for longer than a moment, difficult to isolate one of these songs for particular praise or scorn. It’s the project itself, uninterested in themes or movements or dynamics but rather in asking why we require those things, which mitigates one’s ability to enjoy it.
What anti-formalism sought to be was a voice that challenged monopolistic practices in art. Naturally, it wasn’t worried about making its audience uncomfortable: comfort was the enemy. But with these methods now firmly entrenched in our curricula, records like O are now simply frustrating, uncomfortable not because they turn inside out one’s understanding of how music “should” work, but simply because they are belaboring the obvious at the expense of engagement. Their challenges sound toothless, their arguments are one-sided and lacking nuance and, worst of all, they seem needless or untimely—irrelevant. What pleasures are to be found here sound incidental, are unsatisfyingly few and short. Popp sounds as if he’s having a ten-year-old argument with himself, and though he’s certainly earned the right to make the point that this argument still holds currency, O is less than convincing.