I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
My love affair with Photophob began about 2 years ago when I stumbled upon the sci-fi B-movie-referencing Music for Spaceports album, a scatterbrained breakbeat record brimming with choice samples. Austrian mastermind Herwig Holzmann, in this most popular guise (he also records eponymously and as Das Gritli Moser, Macon Tights, and Thomas Down), can easily be lumped in with the Warp/Kompakt/Astrawerks crowd, and easily sits next to Squarepusher on the record shelf. The beats are all over the place, and the tone is best summed up by the tagline for his website: “Soundtracks for movies that have never been filmed.”
About the Living Things does nothing to dissuade that motto; however, instead of blaster battles in spaceports and deep-space mining disasters, this record is, literally, an ode to insects and micro-organisms, and it could perfectly soundtrack a documentary on tiny life forms. The slow-paced and carefully considered rhythms and textures, departures from the Photophob norm, owe much more to Boards of Canada than Holzmann’s other releases. This record truly captures the essence of the origins of carbon-based life, programmed and processed on silicon machines.
Since each track focuses on a specific life form and is named after each one’s order, phylum, genus, etc. (I don’t think Holzmann cared much for that continuity), I’ll walk you through the record track by track.
- intro. Exactly what it implies: a brief synthesizer meditation to begin the record, with the only instance of found-sound sampling throughout. The voice of the speaker sounds like a British scientist (or documentary narrator) discussing the exact subject of this record: the “living things.”
- isopoda. Taking a page from the Air playbook, Photophob enlists trippy melodies and hazy snare snaps to illustrate the life of the pill bug. Ew, I know, right? Every time you pick up a log or rock in your backyard you send these gray nasties scurrying for the nearest hole. If you try to poke at them, they curl up in a ball, like a tiny armadillo. But here they’re treated with curiosity, the shuffling rhythm underscoring their foraging nature, their constant sense of discovery.
- cyanophyceae – “A phylum of bacteria that obtains energy through photosynthesis” (Wikipedia). Does anyone have the slightest inkling what bacteria actually sounds like? Photophob gives it a helluva try, and succeeds in transcending the relative inaction of the micro-organism by creating a bubbling, subterranean atmosphere, with slowly moving synth drones and glacial beats.
- nematoda – More of the same here for the roundworms – the music lazily expands and contracts like a nightcrawler inching away from the flood of a rainstorm.
- phlebotomus papatasi – Photophob flits his synth pads about on a quiet beach, emulating the movements of the sandfly. The rhythm consists of metallic clanks and scrapes representing the sub-audible movement of insect legs on sand particles.
- nemobius sylvestris – Although it might be the easiest night sound to mimic with a synthesizer, here Holzmann modulates tones in an exact replication of the cricket rubbing its legs together. It’s the perfect accompaniment, and the instrumentation emerges from the liquid state of the previous three tracks into something more kinetic and palpable.
- acari – Rhythm once again emerges as a dominant quality; the subject: mites and ticks. Exoskeletal bodies scratch through leaves and brush, and form the foundation of the track. After listening, make sure you check your clothes and hair in case you need to remove any of the parasites.
- hyperia macrocephala – Quite possibly the most organic-sounding track Photophob’s produced, his meditation on plankton rounds out this mini-album perfectly. Ocean currents and gulls are sampled here, and whether they’re synthesized or not, the varied instrumentation includes flute, upright bass, sax, piano, and drums. Jazzy, and again more Air-influenced, we’re treated to the aural equivalent of the tiny organisms bobbing in the waves and currents, the dense ocean of melody engulfing and lulling, preparing the listener for filtration in the baleen plates of a humpback whale.
This beautiful celebration of insect and micro-organic life is just the tip of Photophob’s discographic iceberg, and it just keeps getting better from here. Herwig Holzmann is also one of three artists who run the Austrian netlabel Laridae, so check out this album (and whatever else you can get your hands on) at www.laridae.at.
RIYL: Boards of Canada, Air, Squarepusher