Form, freedom and how current electronic music is reshaping the LP

04.07.12 Words by: Charlie Jones

I used to know someone who was fascinated by the end of novels. Not so much the last scene – I mean the back cover and spine. The crack of binding as we work our way through it.  The action of the pages gradually pulling away from one side to another. He said that “the end of every novel is a death” and as grandiose as it sounds written down, I feel he may have had a point.  

However absorbed we are in a book there’s always that quiet awareness that it will finish, and that movement to the end is also a digging in of our emotional heels. “I hope it all comes together. I hope it answers all my questions.“ Being aware that physical form holds this kind of power over our experience is an inevitability.  Whatever incredible things happen on those pages, pages are always encased in a front and back cover.  Form is inescapable.  

This idea clearly isn’t just reserved for books. Go to an art gallery and you’ll find you eye tracing the scene on the canvas, and then its corners and edges.  You might scrunch your face up close and then gently take a big step back to get a sense of it as a unified whole. Does it answer all your questions, or any for that matter? And, to put it bluntly, it is a single piece of work hanging on a wall. Whatever is happening on the canvas, the canvas is still in a frame. Form is inescapable.  

Taking the time to work your way through two or more sides of vinyl is active in a quiet and simple way that few other aspects of our daily lives are.

This inescapability can always be tested though, at least conceptually. Any medium can produce great work when the spatial limits of it are explored, and I find myself both convinced and troubled by this tension in electronic music, and especially so in the LP format. After all these years of buying vinyl records I never cease to be fascinated by them. There is something quite mesmerising about putting on a full-length album and just letting it play out. Taking the time to work your way through two or more sides of vinyl is active in a quiet and simple way that few other aspects of our daily lives are.

Two of my most recent and now beloved vinyl LP buys have been Actress’s ‘R.I.P’ and Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland’s ‘Black Is Beautiful’, and the tensions they explore are remarkable. Neither release has been short of critical praise lately, and deservedly so. They are creepy and beautiful and intriguing in ways that I’m not quite sure of, yet listening to these two LPs on vinyl at home – back to back and over and over – I started to think again of this idea of the end and how form shapes our listening experience. 

Listening to them both to the point of exhaustion I can almost hear my friend telling me that “the end of every record is a death.“  Watching the needle wave over the surface grooves as I soak in the music is disconcerting.  I’m torn over a connect between the solid, predictable object and how non-linear these releases sound. The spatiality of the record and our own spatial awareness of the sound it carries aren’t neatly tied together like a Motown girl group 7”, or a classic Ramones anthem.  I know the needle just stopped but what did I experience, and what am I left with here?Perhaps what I’m left with is a collection of snapshots that mirror the personas Actress and Hype Williams have cultivated for themselves; personas as impulsive, daring minds who aren’t afraid to bend the rules surrounding form. 

Take how they treat the release of their music online.  Actress drops bundles of teaser tracks via his Twitter account at random through Sendspace links and Soundcloud accounts, which are deleted as quickly as they are uploaded. Bar a tweet or two little is said about them and if you’ve got them, great, but you probably won’t find them getting released officially. Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland do similar exercises while taking their own brand of self-referential ambiguity to an extreme. 

Their lo-fi productions are recorded on tape, because that’s the only way Dean knows how to work apparently, and this almost ‘anti-production’ attitude follows through to their methods of output and how they constantly dodge any clear sense of public identity. What’s known of the duo is unreliable to say the least. Under their pseudonyms Dean and Inga treat the release of their material with a playfulness that manages to seem ironically both meticulously planned out and random. I mean, who else could sustain an urban legend that they put USB sticks full of tracks into apples and sold then in Brixton market? They’re more likely to release new material by uploading their own YouTube clips and they even gave away thirty three tracks on a timed link through The Guardian, with an accompanying note which read:

“desktop…tunes
finished/unfinished
sorry to anyone we promised these tunes to.cannae deal with them anymore.start again.
Dean and Inga”

Reacting against the physical format like this is part of an aesthetic where the music is snatched, freeform and contourless. They build an idea for us. 

These ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em’ viral drops feed their own disposability as releases into our perception of Actress, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland as artists. Flippant and unpredictable, there’s an occasional yet very apparent disregard towards any ideas of physical output, labels and management. As teaser tracks these “finished/unfinished” bursts of ideas are almost rhetorical devices; constructing images and movements in our minds of their respective sounds that always remain at a tentative distance from anything concrete.  They build an idea for us. Reacting against the physical format like this is part of an aesthetic where the music is snatched, freeform and contourless. Sorry if the tracks were meant to head your way, but we’re bored of them. Have them. Onto the next. Continuity and stability are not the order of the day here. 

So, what happens when this kind of music gets rendered onto a vinyl and framed as an album?  In short, what happens when the anti-form is put in a formal setting?  Modern experimental electronic music is a vast and divergent landscape.  From the murky depths of Drexciyan techno and Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works’, to Oneohtrix Point Never’s drone interludes and even Gwilym Golds ‘Bronze’ player format, there always seem to be this constant interplay between the physical medium, the experience of listening and what exactly it is that we’re listening to. 

For me at least, what happens on ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and ‘R.I.P’ is a not an deconstruction of form but a hyper-awareness of it, and how the frame tries to contract and expand to fit the canvas.  I’m definitely not listening to ‘songs’.  Even ‘tracks’ seems a stretch.  They are vignettes of clips of foreign matter; built from tapings of samples and original material that (at points) feel like soundtracks to films that haven’t been shot yet, but films where reliable, structured narrative comes second to its sensory movements of space, light and texture. 

‘R.I.P’ works against notions of clearly delineated form by floating in on a frequency that is constantly being re-tuned. The sultry reverb on the opening title track bounces around like snatches of alien transmissions until we abruptly move into the twinkling keys of Ascending; as if a mysterious hand has leaned over and twisted the dial just so.  It’s an unsettling way to open an album but this repeated fading in and out through static ripples becomes a noticeable pattern. Shadow From Tartarus sounds as if it’s being dragged deeper and deeper into a forest of petrified wood and the driving house beat layered into The Lords Graffiti tries to trickle through pores that just refuse to open, layered over with strings that are punctuated and cut off with bursts of compressed air.

This all speaks to a consciously stylised take on structure that Actress himself has hinted at. Speaking about the album he once said that the composition process was “like painting with button and sliders… melting and dripping, seeping yourself liquid into the machinery”, and that’s exactly how it works. As a sonic canvas it drips, melts and seeps with a mystifying viscerality. Each movement feels barely hidden under a sprinkling of dust, swelling and contracting with a stuntedness that makes me feel that each piece is insinuated rather than defined. 

‘Black Is Beautiful’ is an altogether different creature though. The artwork for one is stark – starker than R.I.P’s monochromatic stamp. The word EBONY is printed in white, tall and clear against scarlet red, with a matching inner sleeve and vinyl too.  Using one colour like this is quite oppressive. Your eyes are consumed by a singular visual statement but Dean and Inga are playing a sly trick on you here, because there is no sense of an aural unified whole. The album splutters into life with a foreboding raspy laughter and as it loops and becomes like a cough, it cuts to frantic percussion which clatters against disorientatingly pitched strings.

As the volume grows and just as your head starts to spin the feedback is abruptly cut and a gentle, hazy piano line and Inga’s childish voice float in. It’s a hell of an opener, and there’s no letting up either. As you gradually work your way through both sides your expectations of a ending are pretty frayed but there’s one final surprise left. The last thing you hear is that burst of laughter again.  It cuts out mid gasp and when it’s over, I realise that edges of ‘Black Is Beautiful’ are framed by a mirrored human snapshot, and I inwardly laughed to myself. Why bother to expect anything with Dean and Inga?

Other than this raw framing of laughter ‘Black Is Beautiful’ has little discernible formal pattern to it, which is definitely helped by having most of the track list untitled. After a certain point you forget which track is which. Some have barely a moment between them whilst others are separated by prolonged and pointed silences. They unnervingly fade in and out at their leisure and seem keen to let the crackle and hiss of the record become folded into the compositions themselves. As a sonic canvas it seems to try to avoid any definite points of emphasis and by trying to abandon traditional ideas of structure, it’s an LP as unpredictable as the duo themselves. 

For all their differences what ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and ‘R.I.P’ have in common is a desire to put across a radical idea of form that not only makes us feel tense about the uncertainty of what we’re hearing, but also excited by the tension. It’s engaging rather that isolating, restructured rather than unstructured.  We’re hearing something demanding because it demands something of us as listeners.  Listening in any format is highly personal yet these albums have made me listen in a way I haven’t really experienced in a long time. What they have stirred in my head isn’t a complete romantic ideal though. Snapshots are supposed to fade, so to preserve them formally can seem counterproductive. I’ve wrestled with how to give this a name, and I think they exhibit a kind of ‘transcendental form’ to use an oxymoron.

They are transcendental in that they react wildly against any idea of simple pigeon-hole definition, but they’re not so exaggerated that they disregard notions of structure and time altogether. After all the distortion of time and structure is one of the LP’s most interesting aspects. Having said that, they are also formal in that I see them as having complete meaning within themselves. They don’t need to engage with anything external in order to ‘make sense’. It’s not about making sense of them.  How the sound is built is a process, but that’s no longer secondary to the finished product.  It is the finished product. 

They prove to me that music can be the most abstract of all art forms and teasing out what these releases hint at, I would ideally like the potential for diversity within the electronic LP to be inexhaustible.

The process of how the voices are woven into the sound, how the gaping silences and sudden snaps between tracks dictate the flow, becomes that narrative that we thought was initially being disregarded. There’s an overriding feeling that these albums are about the kinetic energy of the sound and that our experience of it is as personal and inexpressible as it possibly can be. They are impenetrable in a way that either acts as a bulwark against meaning, or impenetrable just for the sake of aesthetics. These are albums that John Cage would have maybe called, in his words, “physically, uniquely, themselves.” They prove to me that music can be the most abstract of all art forms and teasing out what these releases hint at, I would ideally like the potential for diversity within the electronic LP to be inexhaustible.  

Yet I know this is probably just a fantasy of mine. Their impenetrability and intricacies are still framed within the LP format. They are not totally free. They may try to shake up formal ideas of composition and song writing in ways that still surprise me after dozens and dozens of listens, but form is still that undeniable frame. Even the most minimal of agitated gestures on ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and ‘R.I.P’ are always mastered by a solid, physical edge – a “domestication of wild things” – but it’s this tension that really lends to the whole experience of listening to them. 

The needle will still stop with a click and I’ll inwardly halt when I realize that it’s finished again, but that only adds to my affection for these albums. Form is inescapable (and I’m still not quite sure what I’ve been left with every time) but I find enormous satisfaction in hearing those who try to defy it. It makes each death quite sweet, really.

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