Crate-Digging: Photophob – Wasteland Vibes

(Laridae, 2012)

Obviously if you’ve read this column at all or are familiar with my musical proclivities, you know that I’m a huge Photophob fan and supporter, and will pretty much do whatever it takes to get you on his bandwagon. Remember when Critical Masses was a wee babe of a website back in the summer of 2010? I was a bright-eyed young buck with the ambitious idea to catalog my music library in public, alphabetically by album title, and hopefully latch on to and cultivate a voice while simultaneously foisting my listening habits to an eager readership. Well, I abandoned the alphabet thing mid-“B,” but here we are, almost two years later, and I’m doing pretty good, thank you very much. I mention all this because Photophob wound up being the fourth column I ever published on this site, for his ode-to-organisms album About the Living Things. (Don’t read too closely, I’ve become a lot more confident in the intervening months.)

I started listening to Photophob, aka Austrian electronic mastermind Herwig Holzmann, midstream, latching on to the excellent Music for Spaceports, sort of an Aphex Twin/Squarepusher hybrid on helium and sugar, Technicolored with B-movie snippets and and future-gazing nostalgia. Skaphander Skanks followed, an equally intriguing romp that didn’t stray far from the interstellar lounge backdrop of its predecessor. He chilled out a bit with Memplex, his 2009 release, and followed that up in 2010 with Urban Dialectics, his soundtrack to the city at night. (Doesn’t matter which city. He’s Austrian, so let’s say Vienna. Now let’s move on.)

Which brings us to 2012 and Wasteland Vibes, and there is no more perfect title for a record – I don’t think so anyway. Truly gone is the warped drill-n-bass B-movie cartoonishness, and even the tempered tranquility of urban nocturnal reveries are made more sinister here, darkened beyond mere nighttime, to the point where the safety of streetlamps gives way to the unease of total blackout. And there aren’t any streetlamps anymore anyway – this is a wasteland after all: a semi-lifeless postapocalyptic landscape or the result, post-Utopia, of civilization screwing it up big time. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a new Photophob, here.

But if anyone was going to soundtrack the wastelands electronically, it would be Holtzmann. Never one to neglect the big picture, he consolidates his considerable cinematic expertise – Spaceports and Skanks were essentially homages to sci-fi flicks anyway – and concocts panoramic widescreen vistas out of dank, dismal electronic frameworks, peppering the entire thing with spoken samples and resolving quite a few minor seventh chords. Yes, I know “dank” and “dismal” conjure something quite different than the lifeless expanses of a post-nuclear earth, but Photophob stretches out his compositions and lets them breathe beneath the gray midday sun and float in the blustery, dusty winds.

It’s evident right away that something has changed in the Photophob oeuvre with the synthscape introduction “Into the Outback,” akin somewhat to an orchestra tuning up for a performance, a fitting stylistic choice for the subject matter. “Wasteland Dub” and “Dust Devil” follow, and each hint at the subtleties to which Holzmann has adapted his sound. The former spells it out right in its title – “D,” “U,” “B”; that’s “DUB,” everybody! – as a creeping synth line meets up with Eastern chanting for a expansive experience that nevertheless also feels claustrophobic in its execution. The 4/4 rock drums that buoy the tune spread out the murk. “Dust Devil” is much more forboding – clickier, more downtempo, evil clouds on the horizon kind of music. Sinister.

And that sets a perfect tone for the rest of the album. I don’t know how much clearer I can say this – Photophob’s in a dark place on this album. Even with “Mad Nomad No. 8,” a much jazzier and skitterier entry than the rest of the album, on which Holzmann digs into his back catalog of studio tricks for a more manic approach, there’s a deep level of psychosis on display, as if the titular nomad has adapted to a civilizationless existence with all the grace of a feral hyena. That’s what happens, see – regression to the basest forms of existence. (Have you been watching The Walking Dead? [And if you haven’t, why not???] That’s the endgame – civilizationless pack mentality, kill or be killed.) See also masterful darkwave gem “Find Him, Kill Him” – gorgeous in its brutality.

So let me again champion Herwig Holzmann’s Photophob project – I wasn’t sure what hat he’d try on this time, but he’s exceeded even my expectations with Wasteland Vibes, a heavy, dreary album that’s, somewhat paradoxically, a joy to listen to. He’s adapted his signature style to incorporate elements of dubstep and darkwave without losing his passion for concocting the perfect beat, or his ability to layer track upon track without overstuffing. Wasteland Vibes is uncompromisingly nimble and agile, a strength considering its subject’s weightiness; it could very easily have been crushed, but it instead remains solid at all times. I’m sold. Download it at Laridae.

RIYL: instrumental Nine Inch Nails, Xorcist, 16 Volt, K.D. Expression


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