Odd Machine, Phase In

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[Non Standard Productions]


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It’s always seemed to me that Tobias Freund’s Non Standards Productions have been more about sessions than tracks, and Odd Machine’s “Phase In” is no exception. For the second Odd Machine release, Freund pairs up with his old friend, Uwe Schmidt. Like many of this duo’s past collaborations (from back when Freund’s business cards still read “Pink Elln”), this session is characterized by live improvisation within established technical boundaries. Freund unsurprisingly clings to his Roland TR-808, while Schmidt gets comfy behind a vintage Linn 9000/LM2 drum machine and one of those newfangled, Lite-Brite-looking Yamaha Tenori-On machines. Get “Phase In” spinning and the first thing you’ll hear is the voice of Roger Linn giving a cook’s tour of the drum machine he designed — a telling sign of things to come.

As a bright cloud of humming tones rises (to remain hovering over most of the track), our dynamic duo launch into a cowbell-heavy percussion workout. The hiccuping rhythm is brisk, but the drum arrangements seem rather basic, actually. And while a parade of flourishes and accents offer sufficient variation, this doesn’t announce improvisation so much as structure and control. Everything is very much “on the grid.” My impression is that the percussion sounds are also left largely untreated. It’s as though the drum machines are presented “at face value,” and to a degree the tools become the subject of the music. This is, however, neither a dry academic composition nor a clunky technical demo. These two masters of sound design skillfully exploit the distinctive personalities of their devices. The swirling, gaseous oscillations prove both ethereal and colorful. Occasional shimmers of synth recall the chilly allure of mid-period Autechre. And, at bottom, the jerk-and-shuffle rhythm moves.

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The complementary “Phase Out” also opens on an excerpt from an interview with Linn. This time he introduces information theory and the problem of expectation. You can hear his remarks by clicking above (or get the full BBC program here), but, in brief, he proposes that because a drum machine issues sounds that are, in adherence to pattern, anticipated, “your mind begins to tune out the drum machine itself,” regardless of loudness or bombast. Enter Freund and Schmidt with the audio aids. Behind more of the billowing swirls of timbre, a slavishly ordered drum beat runs through the length of the track. As Linn suggests, the popping rhythm quickly becomes neutral, even gentle. Unquestionably, Freund and Schmidt court this neutrality, but they also orchestrate disruption. Laid over this pattern are a series of miniature “events” — an array of plinking percussive sputters and twisting belches of sub-bass that, despite a general subtlety, can be rather jarring. An exploration of cognition and techno? Perhaps, although the same engagement of the inherent qualities and limitations of the equipment applies to “Phase Out” as well. On both sides of the record, there’s an exciting provocation to think on listening, to focus on structures and surfaces, and then to let our focus drift from the details. That’s for the mind though; Hard Wax calls this “extended tripping ambient-ish & house compatible tunes,” and I think you’ll find the body knows how to follow the beat just fine, thanks.

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