Square is a slow burn. Distinctly less immediate than Sebastian Kramer’s previous previous LP as Redshape, The Dance Paradox, the German producer’s latest develops his sound in a more insular direction. Its radiation-battered landscape calls to mind Kode9 & The Spaceape’s Black Sun, but Square‘s individual tracks are better integrated into the album’s rusted-out architecture. Spelling out each scene with deliberate slowness and restraint, Redshape’s sobbing pads and shuffling percussion evoke the pacing and feel of Carl Craig’s “Televised Green Smoke” applied to the sonic signature of his own previous work. Whatever paradox he was referring to with that album — something to do with balancing dance floor usefulness and sonic originality is a safe bet — it’s effectively tabled for the first 50 minutes of this meticulously delineated album, after which point “The Playground (Square Version)” makes a clean break with the project’s gravitational pull.
Listeners who balk at the adjective “cinematic” will be reassured that the plot of Square doesn’t get any more involved than generalized dystopian unease — we’re a long ways away from the epistolary sci-fi Shackleton explored on his Music for the Quiet Hour, although Redshape has just as good a sense for leaving answers out of reach. Even if it’s just a matter of pacing and vibe on Square, we’re having a filmic experience. Redshape teases out a thin and sickly atmosphere that exerts downward pressure, as if challenging his drum machines and unwieldy motifs not to die from exposure. Even in its slamming middle, particularly the leaden suite comprised of “Moods & Mice” and “Starsoup,” Square‘s rhythmic drive struggles against unseen forces as spidery melodies streak down like toxic snow.
The album’s most interesting moments are the less muscular, interstitial tracks that guide us toward and away from the album’s core. On one level, “Atlantic” is procedural, kept at a cautious, mood-setting simmer as synthetic seagull noises and the sound of waves attempt to mollify a parched, splintery beat. But the real action is in the billowing strings above, which mass like time-lapse footage of storm clouds. These vignettes are nice to linger in, but over time the listener suspects Square‘s attention to detail leaves little room for drama. Redshape put a couple of these tracks into a different context for his recent eclectic XLR8R podcast, threading them between like-minded tracks by Brian Eno, DJ Shadow, and The RZA.
Clearly, Redshape is not restricting himself to a narrow view of dance music; more than on The Dance Paradox, which traded in similarly sketchy and ambitious sound design, Square is an album conceived across and beyond its individual components. Ultimately, pulling off the album’s richly imagined, heavy, and immersive world comes at the price of stand-out moments. Formally, this is dance music shot through with a hip-hop-informed take on sampling, but seemingly by design, it fails to unambiguously take off. It’s as if each track revolves around trying to digest some central figure, like the wheezing synth line on the menacing “Paper,” that can’t quite be smoothed into the music, maintaining a bristly independence from both Kramer and the listener. Transcendence is tantalizingly out of reach on Square, which prefers to offer its rewards in its shadows, valleys, and ellipses.