Moritz Von Oswald Trio, Horizontal Structures

[Honest Jon’s Records]


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There’s a tension in techno between experimentalism and immediacy. How does a producer simultaneously catapult us into the future and keep us pinned to a dance floor that is very much in the present? The simple solution is to give voice within the music to both of these drives: maybe add a great hook to an abstract jam, or let a familiar framework shape otherwise strange sounds. As much as we chin-scratchers like to play up this music’s avant-garde tendencies (it certainly helps assuage our non-techno friends who assume we don parachute pants and pacifier necklaces every Saturday night), a certain amount of directness and engagement is a critical ingredient in good techno; likewise, without headiness, the stuff becomes gratingly mindless.

But what if the experimental and the immediate were one in the same? Could those very elements which catapult Side A to the top of the Juno charts also land its creator on the cover of The Wire? Moritz von Oswald, who has spent his entire career immersing us in this techno duality, has proved a case in point. With Mark Ernestus, he gave us Basic Channel and Maurizio, instances of stringent, gallery-ready minimalism that also happened to be some of the nineties’ most reliable sources for floor-fillers. They approached this duality from the opposite direction with Main Street Records and Rhythm & Sound, recontextualizing house and dub in explicitly intellectual terms (without letting the projects wade too far into the academic). How you view their music — art project or warehouse project — depends on where you hear it and how you listen to it, not on which aspect of the sonics are inherently clubby or heady. Since hooks and experiments both lose their niftiness over time, perhaps it’s the ambiguity of Ernestus and von Oswald’s stance that keeps their music relevant nearly 20 years after we first heard it.

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While the Moritz Von Oswald Trio, his main gig since 2009, is effectively post-techno, the group continues to toe the line between high art and down-and-dirty functionalism. Their first album, the classic Vertical Ascent, explored this divide as delicately as would be expected of three techno auteurs (Max Loderbauer and Sasu Ripatti, two old hands with similarly ambiguous takes on electronic music, round out the Trio): through crafty dub-indebted engineering, von Oswald squeezed four imminently listenable and potentially club-friendly compositions out of extended studio improvisations. Things got a bit weirder on Live In New York, wherein the group riffed on their more focused album cuts and in the process made us wonder how we ever thought we’d get away with playing “Pattern 1” at peak time. Horizontal Structures, the trio’s latest, completes this turn toward the strange, ironically making it a less exciting entry in von Oswald’s discography than it could have been. This isn’t to say that Horizontal Structures isn’t an excellent album; it’s just less versatile, and thus markedly less transcendent, than their last.

The album, this time a collection of “Structures,” finds the Trio in the same tropical climes as Vertical Ascent, perhaps on an even more discombobulatingly humid afternoon. As “Structure 1” chugs into existence, a new addition to the Trio’s sound, Paul St. Hilaire’s dreamy guitar noodling, cuts ever so softly through the haze. Best known as Tikiman, St. Hilaire is no guitar wizard, but his playing lends a welcome human touch to the trio’s somewhat more processed sound on this record. The same goes for Marc Muellbauer’s contribution of double bass, which keeps the sprawling “Structure 2” pinned to the earth. For two tracks with very different approaches to rhythm, the album’s first two sides feel strangely close to one another in mood and in style: when I listen, I find myself not so much getting lost inside of the tracks as I do losing track of the entrance amidst the drone. With more prickly beats, “Structure 3” quickly snaps you out of your siesta, although I don’t imagine its peculiar swells and vaporous melody will summon you out of your beach recliner. You will, however, be in the right mindset for “Structure 4,” a surprisingly swift 20 minutes of Ripatti’s excellently subtle percussion and Muellbauer’s bass riffage.

As the album reaches its close, you may find yourself struggling to elucidate what you’ve just experienced, which is perhaps the greatest difference between this record and the one that preceded it. Where Vertical Ascent was made up of four discrete and easily approachable tracks, Horizontal Structures works most effectively as an entire set, one you may find a bit difficult to fully digest. Many of the familiar von Oswald touchstones are present — subtle electronics, general dubbiness — but rather than tiptoe down any stylistic lines, this record stands firmly to one side. And that’s the rub: with this record the Moritz Von Oswald Trio seem to have completely left ambiguity behind and stepped firmly into the realm of experimental music. It’s not a particularly bad place to be, and the members of the Trio are absolutely up to the challenge. Such sure footing just might not be the most interesting stance for them.

Blaktony  on April 20, 2011 at 8:34 AM

Submersed in idealistic textures & composition; I dig this….cool & trippy at the same time,i’d love 2 see a live show. Dubby Greatness,indeed.

stewart  on April 21, 2011 at 11:40 AM

Thoughtful review

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