GARY STEEL is enchanted by a seductive and gently adventurous album. By a drummer, no less.
They say record labels have become irrelevant, and it’s become the thing for artists to jump from one label to another like little scuttlebugs trying to find the freshest leaf, or even not bothering with labels at all.
At the risk of being thought of as curmudgeonly and nostalgic for an era in which record labels mattered, I’m going to assert once again that when labels do it properly, there’s a curatorial aspect that makes it worthwhile for the consumer to chase each release on a label just as much as the artists it fosters.
One of the best examples of this imaginatively curatorial approach was West Germany’s ECM, which in the 1970s took the experimental jazz that had developed in America and gave it a whole new European slant, filtered through pristine recordings, star-studded groupings created just for particular releases, and a particular aesthetic that ran through both the music and the exquisite cover art. Tagged “the most beautiful sound next to silence”, there was a certain tranquility around many of their releases that never, ever ran aground on the sappiness of new age sensibilities, but remained explorative. At one point, I owned every single ECM album, although as the label diversified in the 1980s, I began to lose interest.
If there’s a label that deserves to fight for the same hallowed mantle as ECM in the ‘70s, it’s Erased Tapes, a London-based label with distinctive, recognisable artwork and cover design, and an approach to experimental music that is very ECM-like, inasmuch as its artists probe around the edges of what listeners might find acceptable, but almost always manages to seduce rather than overtly challenge with excellent audio engineering and artists who are clearly given a directive to be adventurous within prescribed boundaries.
Daniel Brandt is the percussionist in a Berlin-based group called Brandt Brauer Frick, and Eternal Something is his first solo album. Unsurprisingly, beats form its exoskeleten, and in total, it’s a beguiling avant-garde iteration of techno. I use the word ‘avant-garde’ with some hesitance, because its experimentation, like those of other Erased Tapes artists, is gentle and considered, and the results are highly listenable, and very enjoyable, whether you’re just lapping it up or jiggling around the room. (Please note: I am in the first category).
Eternal Something starts out with an untypical track, ‘Chaparral Mesa’, that could give the wrong impression of the project. It’s great, but for some time, it sounds like overdubbed guitar parts are jostling for space, and sounds more than a little like the kind of post-King Crimson work of Robert Fripp and his musical buddies. Eventually, however, repetitive beats enter against surging ambience, setting up a template that the album will follow. With beats bobbing about like buoys on choppy water, but with a backdrop set in the sea of tranquility, it’s a joy for the ears.
Specialists in low-end bass will probably not get their rocks off, because the subwoofer only really kicks in a couple of times, but that’s not the point. Eternal Something is a record where the texture and tunefulness of the percussion alone is a head trip, and then there are all the other sonic colours and patternings to take into consideration.
It would be unkind to call this mood music, but it does work beautifully as a background canvas. There’s nothing better, however, than mood music that turns into something else when you engage with it, and sonically and musically, there’s enough of everything to appease the senses.
Brandt brings in different sounds, like the synthesiser sweeps and oscillations of ‘FSG’, the ‘scary’ Theremin-like ululations on ‘The White Of The Eye’, and the mallets and horns of ‘Turn Over’. At times, we’re reminded of Philip Glass-style classical minimalism, and there’s an almost African bounce to the drums on some tracks.
They say that when making music on computers, it’s almost impossible to know when to stop and say ‘finished’, and that the few that know when to stop are the only ones that come up for air with anything listenable. Brandt knows when to stop, and perhaps that’s because he’s based the album around performed instruments, and then added the sounds that he had in his head. It’s quite lovely.
[Note: Gary Steel reserves the right to reappraise and alter his star ratings up or down at any time].