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.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll focus exclusively on netlabel releases for all of April…
You should already be intimately familiar with Photophob. I’ve reviewed his ambient electronic meditation on organisms in this very column. Go on, have another look. Photophob, aka Viennese electronic producer/ composer Herwig Holzmann, however, isn’t limited by what he observes under a microscope. In fact, what drew me to his music in the first place was his fascination with science fiction, his gaze to the stars, and to the interplanetary future that awaits us. Music for Spaceports was the clear gateway drug, its title and retro sci-fi-novel cover signaled my Pavlovian drooling response, and before I knew it my keyboard was a sopping mess. Well, maybe not, but I downloaded it immediately. It was awesome, but that’s not the record I’m reviewing. Spaceports is one of Holzmann’s few releases that doesn’t have the Laridae Records symbol on the corner of its cover, and since Laridae is one of the great electronic netlabels out there (if not the best), I thought I’d highlight an item from their catalog. So Music for Spaceports’s follow-up, Skaphander Skanks, it is. (Oh, and Holzmann’s one of the founders of Laridae, so hopefully he approves. I’ll get to Spaceports at some point.)
Earth in the near future is not a hospitable place. In fact, human beings have stripped it of most of its natural resources, relegating it to a rusted hull of a planet covered in the industrial detritus of a wasteful species. And that disinterest in the environment has brought about Earth’s doom – thus the tagline on the cover of Skaphander Skanks: “Just when mankind thought its end had finally come, strange sounds from outer space changed it all…” Like its literary and cinematic sci-fi brethren, SS brings us into contact with unknown galactic intelligence, just when the human race is on the verge of reaching beyond its solar system into the cosmos beyond to save its sorry self. And like the antecedent circumstances that crop up in tales of this nature, this self-proclaimed “space opera,” – instrumental though it is (with occasional dialogue samples), and even opening with an orchestra tuning up and applause – features descriptive language in its tracklist and emotional dips and swells in its music that triggers listener reaction in all the right ways.
Somebody’s gotta finance your space expedition, right? That’s what the opening sample and salvo have me wondering – who does the woman, whose voice breaks clearly after the applause, represent? “I am here to struggle to create a modern utopia.” Clearly she’s either desperate for change or movement (note the use of “struggle”) or she needs cash to lay the groundwork for a new endeavor. Either way, “Modern Utopia (Signing Up For A)” opens the record at a frantic pace, electronic rhythms and melodies furiously playing table tennis against one another, mimicking the time-lapse quickness of technological progress. And humanity obviously has made a leap into its own solar system – it’s not a group of space newbies leaving terra firma for the first time. We at least have a presence as far out as Jupiter, according to “On One of Jupiter’s Moons (Accurate Readings)” and “My Baby’s Got a Bar on Ganymede (A Milk Bar).” Excitement is palpable in the former in the face of scientific discovery, and the latter has a sense of weary contentment at the end of a long day. And trust me, days are looong in space.
So now you’ve got a spaceport, a way station for the scientists, outer space construction workers, and delegates from different species and races to congregate, meet, connect, and reroute as needed. You’ve got a “Nursebot” (two in fact, “Nursebot #1 [A Bleep for Every Sheep]” and “Nursebot #2 [Play!]”), a “Galactic Delegate (Negotiator’s Entry Blues),” and what spaceport is complete without a “Shimmery Alien Lounge Band” (the subtitle for “Ectoplasmic”)? And even the title of the album itself holds some meaning here – Skaphander is a German word for a scuba derivation, which would make more sense in this context as a “scosba” (an acronym I made up for “self contained outer space breathing apparatus”), gear you’d figure that the maintenance team would desperately need. And I have to remind myself to talk about the music a little bit too – by mid-album the furious pace of Holzmann’s drill-n-bass sugar rush has eased a little, allowing the excitement of outer space existence to wane slightly, and permitting a more melodic day-to-day mundane existence. You know, “The world of tomorrow, today!” actually occurring and no one’s surprised by it anymore.
And then it starts to drag on you a little bit, the constant pressure of space life. Earth is a memory, the stars are the future, and until there’s a suitable relocation point, you’re stuck in space. Maybe your family’s on a colony somewhere, or even back at the spaceport, but the long hours and days and months away take their toll. Fortunately, I find that the back end of Skaphander Skanks connects even more to a human perspective than the front end, the real emotions sinking in to “1,000 Miles Away (More than Merely a Dream),” more a dub-inflected clanger than the previous tunes. In it, while night descends over the rim of a crater, the subject is depicted with this sample: “And with all his might, he wished himself 1,000 miles away…” “A Very Subjective Emotional State (Excitement)” finds a space loner ready to return home. And “One More Rock to Land On (Bringing Everybody Home)” marries plaintive synth swells to fragile beats for a nostalgic longing. Whether you’re hurtling home in a rocket or dreaming of a more innocent time, “One More Rock” will hit you in the right spot.
Herwig Holzmann has a vast body of work, and Skaphander Skanks is as good a place to start as any. Holzmann has proven himself a gifted storyteller who communicates through the pulses, beats, tones, and fragments of electronic music, and studying his album-length thematic meditations is always worth your time. For an admitted sci-fi nut like myself – “geek elite” as we prefer to be called – nothing is more intriguing than digging into the philosophical debates stemming from our possible futures. And for that to happen via music – well, Photophob has won this argument. I’ll get him next time.
Please please please – download Skaphander Skanks. And Laridae rules.
RIYL: Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Autechre