Venetian Snares - Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett
The early 20th century composer, Bela Bartok, was renowned for his pieces that blended older tonality with the new, bleeding edge trend of atonality, which is more fittingly labeled in Bartok's case as polytonality. In terms of utilizing more atonal and modern techniques, Bartok used the typical atonal transformations (tranposition, inversion, etc.) and a vague notion of the idea of set classes. While this may seem run of the mill or unsophisticated in the scope of other bellwether composers like Schoenberg, whose methods were much more mathematical, Bartok was not concerned with pursuing serialism, and his atonal techniques were a means of transforming his tonal techniques, which are much more interesting. Bartok, a Hungarian composer, spent a chunk of his earlier career transcribing peasant folk melodies of the Magyar, from out in the Hungarian countryside. He took these "found art" pieces and used them as the spine of many of his own compositions, inserting and reinterpreting their inherent musical structures as an opportunity to blend tonality and atonality. The particular mix he established led to critical acclaim for his compositions, and today he is remembered as one of the most important composers in ushering in a new brand of composition, though he wasn't as heavily into the theory (musical set theory) that defined this new sound. Bartok was really a visionary, yet also a singular composer for his unique ethnomusicological awareness.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century. Classical music, and more specifically modern classical music, though it has tangentially been running forays of its own sort into a more forward thinking and futuristic way of looking at music, has been overrun in the public's eye by jazz, then rock, and now even hip hop and electronica. Similarly, in each of those genres there are artists reaming the edges of those boundaries and are thus garnering critical acclaim as well. One such artist, Venetian Snares (pseudonym for Winnipeg resident Aaron Funk), is pushing the boundaries of the electronica subgenres of breakbeat and hardcore, which is sometime compressed to the portmanteau "breakcore." The two most popular and recognizable artists to fiddle around in this genre are Autechre and Aphex Twin (who spends a lot of time on his album Drukqs
in this subgenre and actually resembled this album a lot in aesthetic and tone). However, both aren't as completely entrenched in the genre as Venetian Snares in, leaving his particular purist breakcore to be the centerpoint, quintessence, and most extreme example of the genre's strength. Breakbeat in general is defined by a very fast beat with a lot of variety, and a slower moving backdrop chord progression or melody to provide a contrast for the ultra fast beat. Most of the variety and innovation in the genre comes for making the beat faster, more varied, more unusual, etc. Similarly, hardcore is essentially sped up electronica with an aggressive sound. Think of Amon Tobin as a good example of a hardcore artist. And though, as a hardcore punk advocate I shy away from that doubling of terms, when hardcore and breakbeat, two fast, aggressive, and abrasive genres combine, the result is an undeniable force, meriting its own focus and study.
Aaron Funk has established himself as a fashionista for breakcore, both popularly and critically, and has really pushed the speed, variety, and aggression of the beat to its extremes. Keep in mind he had done most of this after only a few years of writing and releasing albums within the genre, so he has already accomplished what other progressive artists accomplished within the genre; push the beat to a higher level. However, an underrepresented but massively important element of his music that hadn't been expanded beyond the typical collection of sampled computer noises and artificial sounds, is the pitch-based content: the melody and the harmony. Here is where Funk, finds a path that is very similar to that of Bela Bartok. Instead of pursuing his genres' outer limits and extrema through the expected element, the beat, he stepped back, and decided to push the music from that pitched-based content. Then, likely in imitation of Bartok, he took a trip to Hungary, to collect all sorts of uniquely Hungarian music whether from jazz, pop, or classical (sampling Bartok himself). With his new ethnocentric spattering of albums, Funk returned to Winnipeg and began experimenting. The result is Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett
, and it's absolutely amazing in the same vein Bartok's music was; it pushes boundaries in typical ways, but truly excels in how it shifts paradigms in unexpected ways.
The overall feel of the album is very grandiose. Most of his sampling material comes from classical pieces, leading to a very specific instrumentation. The release is string heavy, and apparently he taught himself violin and trumpet to supplement his sampling on this album. And, of course, strings found in modern music usually suggests an attempt to be epic, sentimental, or grandiose. All of those abstract nouns are present as emotional reactions to the music, but Funk doesn't drop the strings in a cheesy or superficial way. They feel like a necessary tool to making this album more powerful than his others. The strings are powerful, and usually have a darker minor key sound and the way Funk chops and mixes them from left to right speaker and up and down in velocity gives his strings the same feel his mechanical beats do; they have an insane variety based on the precision with which he arranges and mixes them. Funk doesn't let his album run the risk of becoming homogeneously classic sounding either. He varies his instrumentation and sampling genres a lot. One of his most popular tracks, "Hajnal," is string heavy but finds space for a long section that is very jazzy and features woodwinds and trumpet, needling little supporting melodies in the background. "Ongyilkos Vasarnap" is an old 50s pop vocal song that was, interestingly, originally written in 1933 with the reputation as a a suicide song because many people supposedly committed suicide to this song. Even more interestingly is that is was then covered by Billie Holiday, and Funk now takes that as the melodic foundation for his version, which he fits neatly into a 7/4 meter. The mix of asymmetric time signatures and pop chord progressions is really cool because they come from two totally different worlds, one being challenging and unusual, one being catchy and regular. "Masodik Galamb" contains a very odd monologue, purportedly from some Hungarian film about a philosophically understanding of why a pigeon scares the soliloquizer, which when combined with the more playful flute solos in the background and the dark atmosphere, forms a very unsettling and creepy mixture of tones. Other examples of interesting diversions are the operatic aria sampled on "Szamar Madar," and the In Flames or Dream Theater-like harmonics on the guitar on the final track "Senki Dala" whose eerie, sad melody reminds me of the Lamb song "Gorecki." Overall, though while the strings lend power and darkness to the album, the real intrigue comes from the wonderful surprises amongst the classical sounds, which keep the album fresh and unpredictable.
And all of that Hungarian sampling ignores a crucial fact about this album; the beat isn't compromised. There is still the expected insanity in the meticulous crafting of a beat in the Venetian Snares style. However, there are some small changes. One previous and more recent albums, while Funk seemed to use a ton of contrasting sounds thrown back to back in rapid succession, which overall makes a sort of collage of sounds that makes the beat have a distinctive flavor or style, here there is less wild, esoteric diversity to the tones. It's obvious that in the same way Funk narrowed his focus by trying to create a uniquely Hungarian album, he also narrowed the focus on his beats, which I guess is because he didn't want to sound gimmicky or goofy, which his beats can tend to become when he shows little discrimination on which oddball sounds can make it into his CD-R drive. Here, to compliment the focus on the strings, the tones on his beats are more compressed and careful. There is still a lot of electric blipping, but the overall flavor is that his snare is a little more tinny, which makes it sound more like an authentic snare, and his cymbal sounds are a lot deeper, which I didn't expect. Also his use of non-drum kit sounds has diminished during normal parts of the song as well, but he does a great job of throwing in a weird noise to vary the typical "verse" beats as if they were a fill, and as the song intensifies over time he'll add more of these non-drum kit sounds as if to intensify the energy and wildness of the song, which is an awesome effect. The beats are still crazy, but are a little more tasteful and refined than the all out robotic wankery one might expect from some of Funk's other work.
Strangely, by narrowing his aims and tones, Funk managed to make this album feel like more of an artistic achievement than his other albums, thus making this a further stretching and more progressive album than many of his others. He has made a breakcore album that can be respected greatly outside of the genre's initial followers. A lot of this is due to the dramatics of the strings and the style of the music he's working with, but this album is truly a standout for its ability to cater to both the critical and public taste, as well as break conventions, while remaining true to the implied mission plan of being a breakcore artist, which is creating songs with sick beats. This album is absolutely Bartokian in the way pushes conventions in new ways without ever feeling tedious or like it's too much. It respects tradition, culture, and standards, but never lets those notions hold down the album, and in fact, contorts them in his own unique way, using them to springboard to a new level of songwriting altogether.
Recommended Tracks: Hajnal, Ketsarku Mozgalom, Szerencsetlen