Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Looking Back: Raster-Noton in 2008
For many listeners there seems to be the long-held impression that Raster-Noton releases are intellectual exercises for the chin-stroking brigade – music that is to be appreciated and analysed rather than enjoyed. And most certainly not danced to. As a fan of the label I’ve often tried to argue against this, usually unsuccessfully. It seems to me, however, that 2008 has seen Raster-Noton raise a defiant middle finger to this impression, releasing a fantastic series of albums that show the label opening up and expanding its sound while remaining true to its core aesthetic.
The most immediately accessible of Raster-Noton’s 2008 releases was Kangding Ray’s Automne Fold. Many were no doubt surprised by the appearance of organic instruments and obvious melodies on a Raster-Noton release, although long-time followers of the label could point out that this alone was not new territory – David Letellier had previously used these elements on his Kangding Ray debut album Stabil, as did Alva Noto on his extraordinary collaborations with pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto. What was striking about ‘Automne Fold’ was the song-like structure of many of its tracks – some even had vocals. This was the Raster-Noton aesthetic given a pop twist. Who would ever have imagined? And it worked, producing a richly textured album that is highly listenable and emotional.
Meanwhile, two of the label’s founders released full-lengths that can be read as clear statements on Raster-Noton’s relationship with club music. The opening track on Byetone’s Death Of A Typographer features the sounds of footsteps moving off a busy street and descending into a club, muffled beats growing gradually louder until the crisp beats of ‘Plastic Star’ fully kick in. It’s a thrilling moment, and the energy of ‘Plastic Star’ carries through the rest of the album. Olaf Bender’s tight digital percussion is an absolute joy to listen to – combined with some seriously good grooves and moody textures, ‘Death Of A Typographer’ is a masterfully crafted album. (The Plastic Star 12” is also highly recommended, with killer remixes by Sleeparchive, Alva Noto, and Dr Walker.)
Alva Noto’s Unitxt is one of the least accessible Raster-Noton releases of 2008 with its frequent bursts of static, white noise, and high-pitched digital whines. The name, a nod to Club Unit in Tokyo where Carsten Nicolai has played a number of live sets, is however a clear sign that Nicolai absolutely views this as club music. Admittedly, I can’t imagine a DJ being brave enough to drop these tracks on a dancefloor, but this is some of the most rhythmic music Nicolai has ever done.
As a Raster-Noton fan it’s been an exciting year (I haven’t even talked about their book of Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS photography or the Coh Plays Cosey album), and I’m very interested in seeing where they will go next. There’s a real sense of vibrancy to the label at the moment – a moment that is full of possibilities. Instead of strangling their sound or becoming stale by doggedly following a single thread to the exclusion of all else, Raster-Noton have opened themselves up to different sounds and styles while still retaining their distinctive aesthetic. And, yes, they even release music you can dance to.