Thursday, March 15, 2012
Chris: The ghosts of Monolake past
Monolake is one of the golden cows of techno, he is someone you are not really supposed to criticise. He has a legion of fanboys that jump to his defence anytime anyone breaks ranks. And the devotion of many people to Monolake is understandable. He has made some amazing music. And for plenty of us he has been one of those figures that played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of techno. Saying that, when the history of techno is being written, it is not going to be his work as a producer or as a performer that will be most important. The most significant legacy Robert Henke is undoubtedly his role in the creation and advancement of Ableton, a software that truly revolutionised electronic music, for better and worse. And in some ways I kind of feel like the price paid for the development of Ableton has been a lack of development in Henke's musical alter-ego. While he has continued to refine the Monolake sound, the template for his new album is not that far removed what you can find on "Cinemascope". That album was released in 2001, and I don't think it is a coincidence it was also the same year that Ableton Live first came out... It was also the last album of his I really loved, even though I did like "Silence" more than most of his other work in the '00s. It was a bit of a return to form, though short lived it seems, at least based on "Ghosts".
So what about "Ghosts"? Of course there are the golden cow-style reviews, but I really do struggle to work out what such writers can find to love in this rather sterile album. I find the title all too appropriate - it feels like the ghost of Monolake - you can see the shape, you recognise who it is, but there is no life. It just exists in an awkward netherworld somewhere between good and bad. But for me the defining characteristic of the album is ultimately how deeply boring it is. Considering Henke's incredible talents and depth of knowledge I find it strange he could create something so uninteresting. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but it really feels devoid of life, feeling, passion. In some ways I kind of feel like Henke has taken the Kraftwerkian man-machine to its extreme, removing too much of the man from the music. One of the great charms of Kraftwerk has always been precisely how human their music is! But listening to Monolake's album it feels so removed, cold and distant. It does not excite me, it does not interest me, it does not annoy me, it does not even disappoint me. I guess this is what surprises me - how completely it fails to elicit an emotional response.
To these complaints about "Ghosts" I can imagine some of the replies. First is the common refrain about the amazing production quality of Monolake. And "Ghosts" is definitely very well produced. But even if the production is of a much higher grade (and certainly it is), so what if the music itself is not that interesting? I have listened to this on proper earphones and on proper speakers. It still left me cold. It kind of reminds me of those old Dutch paintings of bowls of fruit. Great, it is incredibly accurate painting of a bowl of fruit. In the end it is a still a bowl of fruit, which is something that bores the shit out of me. On a general note, the more time I spend listening to music on really high end systems, the more sceptical I am about many people passing judgement on production quality. Lots of people are listening to this music in 320kbps mp3 (or lower quality) generally on shitty earbuds or mediocre speakers. And for many of us, the standard would probably be the HD25s or something similar. These earphones are good enough, but I am increasingly doubtful about how much you can judge in terms of production on something like these. From what I have heard, it is only really listening to this stuff on high end systems that differences in production quality become clear. Listen to Mika Vainio or Alva Noto in 320 on HD25s and yes, of course it sounds good, but it is only when I heard them on a proper system that I could start to understand just how much better their sound design is compared to most other artists. So when all these people are complementing Monolake on his production quality, I have a feeling a lot of it is because of his reputation as a master sound engineer, rather than because it is so obvious that his production is of a much higher quality than most. I simply doubt most of us are in a position to be able to judge this.
The second objection that may be raised is that much of Monolake's oeuvre has had a cold, icey feel to it, so it should not be a surprise if that is the response that the new album elicits. Of course, it is a distinguishing feature of his music. But I think what distinguishes "Ghosts" from his best work is that it lacks a certain power and gravity that grabs you. Take what I would say is Monolake's last amazing track, "Alaska", or one of my other favourites, "Bicom" (from "Cinemascope"). Neither are that far removed from what he is doing on "Ghosts", except there is a certain something - a spark, some life, a groove - that captures and captivates your attention, and it is this magic 'something' that is totally lacking from "Ghosts".
In many ways "Ghosts" feels like the culmination of a process that began back with "Cinemascope" and Ableton. I really hope it is, but considering this is the second album of a trilogy, I doubt that will be the case. Robert Henke is an amazing talent, a genius who played a fundamental role in shaping electronic music today, but perhaps the price for all of his innovations has been his Monolake alter-ego. I do hope he can rediscover that human spark in his music, but based on "Ghosts" I wonder if it has been extinguished forever.
PC's two cents: a lifeless alcan laps ceaselessly against the edge of the monolake
Chris and I agreed to do a double blind double post on Ghosts. That is, we haven't spoken about the album at all (okay, a tiny tiny bit). Chris was worried we would say similar things. In substance, I think that's true, but in form and style... well, you'll see. I've taken the 'first thoughts, best thoughts' route here. What follows below is a stream of consciousness, written in real time, as I was listening to the album (in 320kbps, on HD25s!). It is my third listen to the album, and second careful listen. The 'rule' here was that all tracks would be played through at high volume, no fast forward, no interruption. One last thing. I notice above the cover: are these ghost gums? There is so little of the arboreal in Ghosts. I was longing for some trees. It's all liquid and metal. It's a very arid soundworld, and lifeless. Ghosts are undead, but they are absolutely the spirits of the living, among us because of anger, or pain, or unfinished business. You cannot be haunted by lifelessness, and that which is lifeless cannot be haunting. And this is such a huge contrast to the Alaska Melting EP, which, independently of Chris, I gave a recent re-rub, on the urging of Max (of London's COLONY parties) fame. Alaska is amazing, and driving, and angry, and dark.
For fuck's sake, listen carefully to this, all the way through. Don't stare at the picture of Robert H though, you're liable to enter an internet k hole...Also, technically, it is still unsurpassed, I think. What has followed from that is privative, it lacks. Monolake has become Monolack. On to the stream. NB: the 'pipe' between each series of comments denotes a silence between tracks.
Everything Monolake writes these days is somehow a metallic tunnel.
As a lyrical refrain, 'you do not exist' seems like a very *literal* way to think about ghosts, and it's at odds with the 'd'n'b lite' rhythmic structure. This is to d'n'b what Coke Zero is to cola drinks. In an aluminium can (once again back in a tunnel).
Actually, no: everything monolake writes is somehow in relation to an aluminium can. Monolake is the audible process of making Ableton rhyme with aluminium.
I've heard this ping-pong ball before. Monolake makes ping-pong balls sound… aluminium. Oh dear, 'spooky' sounds (once again, way too literal an interpretation of haunted tropes in recent music). It's as if Demdike Stare hosted a theme party, and the theme was 'haunted', and Henke… has just showed up dressed as a Halloween child's interpretation of Bela Lugosi (ie: without knowing Bela Lugosi, but having seen, I dunno, Leslie Nielson's Dracula, Dead and Loving It).
I take it this is his poltergeist track (checking song title). Toku. Crickets! Aluminium crickets!
A wood block tapping against the edge of an empty grain silo; very little drive, force, or evocation (where are the 'spooky' ping-pong balls?! Where's baby Bela?). Not ghost in the machine, machine without ghost. Not dead, just lifeless.
I'm realising as I listen to this that music 'must' strike out in some direction (eg toward the heart), or remain in the inertness of its own directionless inertia.
Whoa, aquatic! Now our aluminium can is…washing up on a beach somewhere in Italy, like would-be European North Africans (ie, in search of a better life, but soon to be crushed by the Frontex reality of contemporary Europe (=Henke is a drone or a drone pilot)… actually, I don't get that from Monolake, that's just me riffing.
….okay, now we have a long, slender metal tube, being hit with firm rubber mallets. But we're still beside the ocean, somehow… perhaps a storm water drain - yes, that's it!
A woman or mermaid is counting…. aluminium cans? Waves? Arrivals? ...whoa, key change… whoa… gosh, I really have to concentrate on concentrating on this one, there is very little to concentrate on, to give yourself to.
A large ship has sounded its horn on the horizon. Perhaps it's the Costa Concordia, warning us about its captain's navigation skills (maybe he uses Ableton… maybe he's too busy listening to Monolake?)
Summa: Spinal Tap were 'treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry', Monolake is an empty aluminium can lapping against the polluted northern shores of the Mediterranean. Somewhere below is the sunken hulk of ferry, filled with nuclear waste. But nobody knows. More tuna!
Okay, this time the metallic tunnel is much, much larger; cavernous, but still metallic. This could be a derelict Ford factory in Detroit; you can hear the ghost of Drexciya in here somewhere… but no: where's the rough concrete and grit? Where's the dirt and darkness? Everything here is parenthesised, 'dirt', 'darkness', like 'ghosts'.
Only the aluminium cans are real. 'In the night of the world, all the aluminium cans are grey.'
What is the point of this track? Does a track have to have a point? It could be a formal exercise, but por que? Movement without moving parts? Or just the aluminium simulacra of movement. If this was a bike frame, it'd be a Giant – *that* bland. This is the site of an abandoned Giant bicycle factory, now occupied by the ghosts of alloys past. Deathtopia photography series, edition Monolake.
Alva Noto soundalike! Bauxite: smelted, exported, processed; dead, buried, cremated. Carsten Nicolai still doesn't understand that he doesn't understand Berghain and techno, and this is an approximation of Nicolai's recent approximations (facsimile of simulacra of imitation of approximation… Xerroxed, oh indeed!)… river pebbles hitting riverstones half immersed in cold river water. …what's that floating down the river? Is it the corpse of minimal? …okay, this groove isn't too bad now… first one where I've nodded my meat-made head…. this one is long… (checking title) 'the Existence of Time' – what would ol' Heidegger say about this river? Heraclitus might say: you never see the same aluminium can float by twice…… No, Heraclitus would say: what the fuck is aluminium, get fluxed! I like the outro…
ping-pong balls are doing sonar pings now: ping ping balls. Synth 'voice', once again cold, in a large metal cathedral now.
Ping pa ping pi pi pipipi... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz pa pa papapapapapappapa (whooooooooo….. aaaaaaaaahh………) another sound like bamboo being wound up, but when it's released, the sound of the emitted tension has become… metallic - ?!- Shit, everything is metallic…. whooooooooo…. aaaaaaaaaahhhh…… whoooooooo…….
(check song title: Phenomenon). Hmm… something like a phenomenon…. ah, nice synth wail: aluminium banshees! Oh, they've been forced into a long metal pipe… that'll serve dem dykes right for staring at ol' Ghos'master Henke. There is one master here, and that is the man with the control surface, alles klar? Vorsprung durch technik. Oh, bamboo windups again, releasing metallic… this track is actually pretty dire… …and is taking ages to die (can something lifeless die? Maybe this is the problem). Actually, the outro makes me laugh. Not quite a ROFL, but a CHUCKL, he he he….
Metal *and* glass percussion…. perhaps if you got an audi S8, deconstructed it, and used all its bits to make a track, Einstürzende Neubauten style, it might sound like this. But then, Blixa would be screaming in a way both genuinely harrowing and deeply '80s West Berlin'. Metal and glass typewriters… the sounds computers make in 'cyber'/spy movies. Now there is a ute, and there are metal pipes rolling around in the tray… a cyborg is burping into an aluminium can, and as he does, the can turns into a cavern… back to the ute… – what is the point of this conflagration of metallic/classy/cavern sounds? – now a larger pipe is rolling around in a bigger ute, and it is raining (but not that heavily).
Maus: 'and the rain came down/ down, down, down'. John, if you're reading this, this proves it: the dead zone *is* a sign of the times. Gosh, like the last one, this one takes ages to expire. Terrible composition.
Breakbeaty! Jump up and look out Aphrodite, the King of the BEATS gonna ROCK the PLACE'. rrrrreewind, my selecta…..' the percussion in the background reminds me of the scenes from the Blue Man in Arrested Development…. but front stage it is d'n'b time. But again, if Henke was one of the metalheadz, he'd be made of you know what… Yes, he aluminium can. Dong! Gong. Whoa, big solo from the Blue Man group.
This is a 'hen' (weird/strange) track: I think d'n'b types would hate this, and so would techno and minimal cats. but there is none of the rhythmic microexcitations you get from, say, T++. I don't know who/what this is for, or what to do with it. It isn't interesting (it's very cliche as a composition), the sounds aren't that involving, and it's not really appropriate for DJs… wow, the total pursuit of the most useful technologies ends up producing something… superbly useless. Just because you aluminum can, does that mean you aluminum should? Forbid this man computers and give him the children's Bach (worse than their byte).
Hissy bits…. these beats are bit heavier… Okay, now we are in the Audi factory… but there has just been an earthquake… no! We are aboard a container ship carrying Audis to market in China. We are back on the high seas. You can hear the ocean… we are close to the Great Gyre… flotsam bumping against the hull…. But wait a second: someone left a pipe organ out in the rain! That infernal engine of popery, it's playing on the poop deck. I sorta like the juxtaposition of the creaking boat, the shiny cars, the sea spray, the pitch and yaw, and JS Bach…. hmm, it's gone a bit Dracula now, and the cabin boy is tapping his mechanical pencil against a you-know-what. I like the deep hum of the diesel engine, its mammoth power. I just heard a bunch of squid below the hull. Popery again!
Back w/ the breakbeat stuff – really, Robert? Not quite as bad as the Francois K remix of Rhythm and Sound, but nearly... Okay, this groove has much more propulsion. Gregorians in the background, chanting (what else do Gregorians do?) 44 gallon drums full of stones, rolled toward the pulpit. Whispers down a marble - actually marble! - chapel. The drums are rolling; they are being rolled by a young apprentice who has a dubstep track stuck in this head, headphones secreted under his cassock. One of the monks keeps tapping his tuning fork on the edge of his dinner plate – a porcelain plate! Whispers of vespers, stomach grumbling - tap tap tap! He must be hungry, he keeps tapping; whoa, cacophonous! Heavy metal falling from the sky – wow, including the kitchen sink. This one is all metallic balls out, but manages to be somehow too minimal AND too busy. So many elements: monk, plate, 44 gallon drum, kitchen sink, marble &c, &c (repeat, repeat). Control is a surface. Now the monks have turned into an airport announce-stress. Flights are delayed. Fuck it.
Ah, this one has a nice sub-bass; somehow more 'organised' and purposive. Even kick, nice… hang on, conventional drum machine… ping-pongs all under control. This one is really moving forward. Instantly this is heaps better. It's simpler, but far more expressive… whoa, this sounds like proper techno! Oh, vocal, oh shit, I know this, this isn't Ghosts...… it's the Dettmann re-rub of Morphosis, next folder on my player. Oops! Egad: 'what have we learned?' indeed...
Final thoughts? This is more like it.