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.


  1. That Kangding Ray album is fabulous!

    Raster-Noton has a slight PR problem in that its fans don't dance! Signal played a live show in Boston (well, Cambridge) that took over a weekly dance night. At least one regular was pissed because the place was packed with chin-strokers.

    (I did not have this problem, as a chin-stroker myself)

  2. Agree with this post entirely - except that I love Unitxt and found/find it strikingly beautiful. The thought of it might be challenging, but the actual experience is profoundly moving. Oh and you didn't mention Frank Bretschneider's album, did you not like it? It didn't click with me.

  3. Death of a Typographer is seriously awesome. I thought I'd shit my pants the first time I listened to it. To be honest, until now, I don't think I fully understood or appreciated Alva Noto. Not that I now "understand" it or anything, but Death of a Typographer sort of opened all that up for me. What a great album!

    Isn't Byetone playing in Tokyo Wednesday night or something? Are you going to go?

  4. @ mkb: Yeah, I know what you mean about the non-dancing Raster-Noton fans. I've been to some Raster-Noton events where I've wanted to start dancing around, but felt far too embarrassed to do so 'cos everyone else was sitting on the floor, staring intently at the performers. Thankfully the events they've had at Club Unit have gone really well ... there's even been dancing!

    @ Colin: I agree with you on Unitxt - it's a really good album (the fact that I like it didn't really come through in my post). I think it's fantastic that Alva Noto is doing what is basically dance music, but in his own distinctive way. (I've got a lot of love for Alva Noto ... I wonder if he'll do a second Xerrox release? I loved the first one.)

    I almost mentioned Bretschneider's "Rhythm" in my post, but then decided against it since it wasn't a 2008 release. (Well, according to Discogs and my memory ... both of which can be faulty at times!) But "Rhythm" definitely connects to "Unitxt" and "Death of a Typographer", in that all three of the label founders have released full-lengths of electronic dance music. I actually quite like "Rhythm" because it's all about, erm, rhythms. And Bretschneider knocks out some pretty cool digital rhythms.

    @ The Yurinator: Sadly, I'm going to be missing the upcoming Raster-Noton night at Unit. This makes me a very sad panda, because I'd love to hear Byetone play live. As you said, "Death of a Typographer" is a fantastic album. It's very much a Raster-Noton album, but it seriously fucking rocks.

    Now that you find yourself getting a handle on the Raster-Noton aesthetic, definitely give Alva Noto a go. He's done some absolutely amazing stuff ...

  5. @Cam:

    There is a second Xerrox, he was selling it at his gig at Hive in Liverpool and reading your message just reminded me that I totally forgot to buy one at the end of the show! Damnit. But I'm sure it'll be out soon.

  6. VERY strong year for one of my favorite labels.

    automne fold is just one of the best of the year and one of the best in the label's history (matched only by insen)
    and i adore unitxt. it seems very "chin-strokey" if you only hear a track but the whole album, to me at least, is very danceable

    though raster, like mille plateaux before it, is not really a dance label, but an electronic one. automne fold is not danceable at all, and i, for one, think there should be plenty of chin-stroking in the scene.

  7. Okay, maybe I should give the Bretschneider another go. Funnily enough I've just realised that I'd mixed the albums up - much as I love Unitxt, I was actually meaning Xerrox Vol.1!! But that was last year already... You mentioned the Sakamoto/Noto collaborations. Did you know there's another one out? Unfortunately it's only available on import from Japan at £67.99 (!) on Juno, but I emailed Raster Noton and they're apparently changing distributors and it'll be available earlyish in the new year. The new one is a collaboration with Ensemble Modern - clips sound great. Link to Juno here.

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  9. been loving raster-noton lately. i lost interest in their output for awhile, but they've definitely rediscovered their voice. i have to say, i wasn't terribly impressed by either 'unitxt' or the cd that came with the gas book, but other than that, i'd say they're on a real roll lately!

  10. @ Tom D: Glad to hear Alva Noto has done a second volume of Xerrox! I sadly won't be able to make it to the upcoming Raster-Noton label night at Unit this Wednesday, but I think a couple of people I know are going, so I might ask them to grab a copy for me if it's there.

    @ minimill: Yeah, I totally agree that Raster-Noton is an electronic label, as opposed to a dance label. But I think it's very exciting and interesting to see the label releasing some stuff that they view as danceable club music. But there's definitely room for chin-stroking too. I just think it's great that the label seems to be explicitly smashing the notion that they only produce "head music" - of course, they still do, and I love them for that. But it's great that the label's music can be approached and enjoyed in a number of different ways ...

    @ Colin: Yeah, Xerrox is really beautiful. And I've got my eye on that Alva Noto/Sakamoto/Ensemble Modern release!

    @ crtgr: Yeah, it's a really exciting time for the label, isn't it? As for the GAS release - yeah, the music is most definitely some of the darkest stuff I've heard from Voigt. I can see why it didn't end up on any of the original GAS albums. That said, I quite like the "new" tracks, but it needs to be pointed out that I'm something of a Voigt/GAS fanboy.

  11. undoubtedly been a huge return to form by raster after falling into a bit of a rut. The NHK record is a really brutal treat. you havent mentioned probably the best record theyve brought all year, ryoji ikeda's test pattern. yums

  12. Ah, actually I haven't heard the Ikeda and the NHK yet ... but it sounds like I need to! Respect to the Japanese Raster-Noton artists!


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