Pantha du Prince

Black Noise

(Rough Trade; 2010)

By Chet Betz | 20 February 2010

In 2007 after some labored comparisons to Werner Herzog I called This Bliss Hendrik Weber’s Aguirre. Here in 2010 Black Noise is like, “Sure, you’re right.” Like many of the films that Herzog made after Aguirre, Weber’s latest piece of minimal techno (or “sonic house,” he calls it) under the Pantha du Prince moniker vacillates between extremes of the sublime and the stilted, the gorgeous and the slightly boring, confident auteurism plus brushes with self-parody. I guess it’s fitting that Panda Bear’s here. I mean, all told, it’s actually a really good album. But whereas This Bliss was completely enveloping, a world of texture and beguiling forms emerging and then receding into the shadows that boiled at the music’s root, and also a work of supreme balance and effortless pacing—like Aguirre, see—this new record is sort of like, I dunno, Nosferatu the Vampyre: it almost methodically alternates between bland and striking scenes on its way to a great conclusion. Which is totally worth a rental but Aguirre is a must-own because its wholeness of vision allows it to saturate your brain, compel you to view it once a morsel of its dream logic pops to your recollection, just the way I’m now thinking about “Florac” and “Asha” and want to hear the rest of This Bliss because of the delicate way its innards are intertwined. With Black Noise I just hit skip on “Stick to My Side.”

Not that anything here is truly terrible, it’s just that the Noah Lennox-adorned track is the first time I can say the crossover appeal of Pantha du Prince actually tarnishes the music’s reach to some extent. Vocals feel like too obvious of a step “forward” or into “different” territory while the underlying track itself is actually about as generic Pantha du Prince as you can come by, all chimes and coy synth and slick beats, almost as if Weber knew there was nothing special about the music and so asked his bud Noah to spruce it up—or just knew he wanted a track with Noah yodeling and didn’t bother making an interesting backdrop. There is a pretty cool passage around the 3:30 mark where Weber drives Lennox into a rut, looping a half-second lyric for about half a minute, but it’s an isolated moment of possibility in an eight minute track of awkward vocals and no surprises. It’s also the song that, simply through the dull thud of its trans-genre inanity, most denigrates the Foucault diagram that made perfect sense when Mark whipped it up for our review of This Bliss.

Other tracks like “A Nomads Retreat” and “Bohemian Forest” (tied with “The Splendour” for worst song title) are nondescript to the memory even if they’re rather beautiful in the moment when you can revel in details with a good set of headphones. “A Nomads Retreat” has a couple nice builds where it switches emphasis on two different synth motifs and “Bohemian Forest” has this killer pretty trill that enters around 3:30 (record’s got a thing for doing something cool at three minutes in) that sets Pantha’s trademark woodpeckers off. But the only reason I can write about these moments is because I’m listening to those tracks as I write; the fact that it’s now written is the only reason I’ll remember it afterward. The sum impression of these songs doesn’t make an impact, like late afternoon sunshine on your back—feels good but you don’t even know it’s there. And again I think the “problem,” if you want to call it that, comes back to the lack of the strong, fluid undercurrent that brought all the impressionistic pieces of This Bliss together, carrying them ever deeper into the jungle.

Maybe it’s partly because to the eye they’re more intriguing but the tracks with non-English titles are the best stuff on Black Noise. Which means, if you look at the track listing, that this record’s got an awesome track 2 and an awesome finish. Over a crisp yet heavy bass groove on “Abglanz” Pantha indulges his chimes fetish but doesn’t waste too much time (about three minutes, yes) before introducing a somewhat sinister steel drum line (soon mimicked by an inspired synth tone) that could have been a “Wamp Wamp” alternate. The track congeals around this otherworldly infiltration, hardens, becomes indisputably fly and unforgettable. Then the record’s final trifecta (which I falsely interpret from the German as “Well I’m Drunk,” “I’m Good,” “It’s Shit”) compose a continuous journey into the pulsing heart of all things ethereal: the first is a slightly more subtle successor to “Saturn Strobe” by substituting washes and vocal echoes for strings; “Im Bann” picks up with the vocal echoes but drops the propulsive beat, instead allowing things to drift near ambient with a arpeggio wandering into distortion and lapping static keeping time; and then “Es Schneit” closes Black Noise with its most intrepid endeavor yet, pitting a kinetic but highly compressed high-end against some mighty sludgy bass with, again, those vocal echoes eating up the mids. It’s the record’s most cohesive, most immersive run and signifies what Black Noise could have been if Weber had started with it and worked backwards.

A telling moment for me was when a much-abridged (cut in half, about) version of “Behind the Stars,” which I didn’t care for when I reviewed it as a single last year, became something of a highlight in Black Noise context; the darker edge to the track’s funk served as a reprieve from the record’s mild-mannered middle stretch while its wonderful crescendo now had been rendered more accessible. And I guess that, in turn, forced me to realize that Black Noise is a small let-down because This Bliss didn’t need things like reprieve or more accessibility. Everything worked together and everything was irresistible. With Black Noise the trance is too sporadic to even really exist, which does make it a much more appropriate record for a casual listen—but sometimes a listener just wants to get utterly lost.