Review Summary: snap, crackle, kerrrrrrrr - POP
When I first heard about Live 2002 -- I think it was The Quietus who broke the news, more triumphant that when they whispered gently in my ear about Mika Vainio's untimely death about half a year previous -- I was not skeptical exactly, but certainly hesitant. Certainly this had nothing to do with the players involved, and their collaboration. Vainio's knack for turning the most diffuse of extractions and re-orienting them as impetuses for propulsion (a crackle, a wisp, a coding error); Ikeda's devotion to pattering microsound that recalls, on the right pair of headphones, like someone chipping away at your eardrums with a tiny chisel; Noto's warm, rhythmic chatter, first irritating, then soothing, like being privy to a conversation on a bus until the details are lost to mesmeric cadence. A menage a trois of the most heavenly order, right"
So it wasn't the "Live" part that stuck in my gullet but the "2002". In those heady days each were performing morally dubious vivisections on electronica on the cutting edge, exploring ways in which the incidental and the atonal could be made not just theoretically interesting but danceable, energising and not enervating. Now these elements -- at the time innovative -- have become deftly woven into the tapestry of electronic music and music in general. Had this been released in the year it was recorded, it may well have been seminal, i thought, but as an archival release my interest, and the albums purpose, wouldn't have been so much diluted as deluged.
1:34 seconds into the album later and I had that notion firmly disabused.
What happens is a synecdoche of what makes the trio so interesting. The sound of a truck reversing entered my hearing and even though I was wearing noise canceling headphones, even though the tone was impossibly pure, even though I knew in advance to expect a trick like this, I took off my headphones to check. There was no truck, only the kind of lingering, unpleasant silence that occurs when a sound you've enjoyed has been abruptly taken away, the silence of the record scratch, the end of an argument when the door has been slammed and you're left to your thoughts, when the music is switched off at the party after noise control have arrived, the flatline.
I kept listening as the sound of the truck recording lost fidelity with each beep until it morphed a diaphanous chorus of electronic squeal and I realised: you ***ers had me at hello.
That the tracks are called "movement"s is apt; the piece flows together, the track-breaks seamless but logical. Some of the suites work better than others. I find myself more at home in the buzzsaw sines and interfering fuzz of the 5th movement, for example, than the more pop-oriented 4th, which one could call minimal techno (micro-techno") with something like a straight face. That the juxtaposition between the two modes doesn't feel incongruous is a testament, though, to the way the performance allows itself to peak and trough organically, which brings us to the juxtaposition of the organic and the inorganic, a recurring motif on the album. The sounds are obviously manipulated, created in a laboratory, but presented in such a tonally acceptable, metrical way that -- well, it forms its own language, and though the logic is impenetrable sometimes (even I, archmasochist, could have done without that panic-inducing ascending drone in 6, Ikido's pitter-patter going far beyond my ears and reaching the kidneys).
And then the ***ers go and *** it all up; the concluding track is a howl that sounds like all the sounds of the album being played simultaneously until there's no stamina left and the album collapses under its own weight. How many straws does it take to camels back is here framed as how many microtones and incidental sounds need to accumulate before all breaks lose -- according to the albums time-frame, 40 minutes and 10 seconds. It goes without saying that the conclusion has real heft, but a rare beauty too. Vainio, Ikeda and Noto understand better than anyone that innovation and destruction so often go hand in hand.
What sets it apart, even today, among a multitude of artists who love working with data, mathematical effect and manipulation, is that it has it both ways. As mentioned, it makes one conscious, uncomfortably alert [insert cheap joke about adderall here] of the fact that you are listening to sounds, encouraging a meta-experience and showing off the breadth of the way even excruciating tones can be rendered into a pattern of music -- in a digital age where we lack experiences of rotating slabs of vinyl with entrancing labels, or even putting the CD in the laptop, and album art is often only something you fix in your itunes, it transforms it from an aesthetic form into a commodity (which, I posit, isn't necessarily a bad thing). Vainio, Ikeda and Noto make you stop, listen carefully, using the promise of digital against itself to say we are here, and we are making this, and you are listening to it.
But if it's unrelenting in that sense, it's also forgiving in that i'd never call it cold, or academic, or boring like so many of their peers. There's always something thrilling, fascinating, even, as incongruous as the descriptor might appear, funky about each of their work that envelops you in an embrace even as it tries to find the right sounds, the right key, the right tone, to force those headphones off you; even if you do succumb to the screech, the inclination is always to dive back in.
In that sense this is a sad album, and not just because of Vainio's passing. It's a paean and an elegy for a time, sixteen years ago, when this kind of musical exploration could have been the road taken. In a landscape littered with smarmy post-industrial, cheap gambits, tired dissonance, this archival piece still feels as if it could have recorded yesterday. I'm honoured we have this document; saddened that we need it to lament what may have been.