DUSSELDORF’S Stefan Schneider, who’s put out seven albums of beguiling, playful and always thoughtful ‘tronica since the millennium, has gathered together new works for Bureau B – very much the label du jour for Germanic electronic music, be it contemporary or from the rich vaults; and this album will be with us this Friday, glorying in the excerpted, fractured title of My Frequencies, When We.
The title causes a few question marks in the elucidation. It’s part of one thing, the beginning of another; at once plainly descriptive, and also moderately confusing and giving pause for thought. Maybe it’s all wry, a little joke, not at us but with us.
Which is also a fair guide to the sonic contents; never quite normal, always adding brilliant and quirky flourishes; one foot kinda dipping a toe on the dancefloor, the other off in his homeland’s grand electronic experimental tradition; refashioning, nudging, seeking, always with intelligence.
His oeuvre to date includes recordings for many of the great German imprints that espouse the movement: Sleep, Engine Sleep, Version Train and a brace of others for Markus Detmer’s Staubgold; a two-hander with Kuchen for Karaoke Kalk; The Africa Chamber for Stefan Betke’s mighty ~scape. He brings in influences from African and South American folklore, dub and krautrock, gives them thought, warps and melts them and reprocesses them until your antennae pick up their merest ghost of the original thought-source, so wholly has Stefan made it his own.
He’s collaborated with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and also oversees his own TAL label, curating experimental kosmiche (Roter Stern Belgrad) and African out-grooves (Ogoya Nengo And The Dodo Women’s Group).
My Frequencies, When We was recorded between March and August this year, in the isolation that’s a byword for 2020. For the first time in a long time, due to the ‘rona, there are no guest collaborators. Stefan himself bears vocal witness when the tracks call for it, as on the deep electropop of “The City In”.
In sparer times, he also limited the palette of his equipment: an analogue tape loop, an 808; synth and guitar. Stefan says: “Simplification of the means is something I strive for. I have come to realise that my music loses intensity when I add in too many elements.
“Stripping down the pieces in play always increases the impact and I have to keep this in mind whenever I’m working.”
But there’s no let-up in the musical palette, for all this; it’s by turns, fun, danceable and pseudo-danceable, immersive, intense, even pop; you’ll hear dub, Afro polyrhythms, grooves that buckle in on themselves; Can/Cluster/Neu! referencing textures; even more experimental sonic chatter that sets its tiller for the worlds of Frank Bretschneider.
My Frequencies, When We opens with “No No Staying”: a seductive, slow pulse as much squeezebox in tone as it tronica, lending it an abiding outfolk texture, haunting and grand, one gentle cymbal zizz your implicit bpm. Stefan himself is present as a light, whispered, interjection, a mantric guru presiding above all in echo. Until, of course, it explodes with electronic crackle and static and quasar pulsing at the three-minute mark, and the track chatters gaily into another place entirely, like hitting the on-slip on an autobahn, suddenly you’re thrilling along.
“Flute Channels” has motorik in a Suicide way, lo-fi drum machines glorious in their hiss, the flutes or ersatz flute tones weaving a jazz mantra, coursing in their own groove and making the arrowing pulse of the main rhythmic flow deliciously more wayward. There’s lot of sub-polyrhythmic space in which other mechanoid instrumentation burrows and ticks and busies itself, should you find one of the service gantries that lead deeper in. It has an intriguingly hive-mind abstracted urgency. Little 808 fills judder and just pin the whole glide down to terra firma. Sonics swoop and dive and delight in their flight.
“My Mother Sailor” descends even deeper into backwards-masked tones, slicing and sliding; there’s a high tinkle scattering at random within, like the sound of a harbour on a windy night as sheets and masts clatter. Burrow in and there’s high swoops of pure tone, partial melodies; it’s a blurry, foggy and transporting texturescape, in which nothing ever quite becomes the anchor, the focus; always shifting and unstable. Some of the resulting wooziness, for me, calls to mind voyagers more from the analogue side, such as Seaworthy.
“Outside Arendt” – whether some reference to the political thinker Hannah is moot; what it is is a slower, mournful techno melody with a kickdrum sway almost like a prison worksong; slow and steady, slow and steady. The tones abrade, but never scour; just that little singing edge of sharpness. It’s a got a seascape thing going on. The two elements, the moodier introversion of the melody and the starker beats, recall Hi Scores-era Boards of Canada. Music to be heard while walking through a woods on a winter’s day.
“Actual Possible” is a playful and whimsical excerpt with super-distorted drums thundering through, and gives way to “Taro Zing Ta”, a joyful deconstruction of electronica, very much in the grand alien tradition of Conrad Schnitzler and Frank Bretschneider. It has crackle and whirr and between-band longwave eeriness. Like the best of the two aforementioned artists, it sounds as if fashioned by a civilisation we’ve not yet encountered.
“To A Single Listener” I’m guessing is aimed at me, and you; and you over there. It has the dubby percussive space you’d expect no doubt from an artist who’s worked with ~scape, crackling rhythmic textures and a minor squall of shifting howlround feedback worthy of the Mary Chain. Think Rhythm & Sound cleaving away from their dub roots towards post-rock; maybe in the fishtank with Disco Inferno or somesuch.
“The City In” very much retreads that Suicide thang, with a quietly alienated vocal, “So many people walking up and down, in the city” – that simple impression to read into, gain more from, as it gains weight in the repetition. Musically is has that Germanic urban cool: clean tones and just the right amount of whirr and glitch and bubble. It has that finesse of motorik; you are the camera, effortlessly gliding through the urban and observing, detached. It also reminds me a little of John Cale’s track with Kelly Lee Owens from last year, “Corner Of My Sky”.
“Antistasis” is a thrumming essay in lip-curlingly stirring acid and more abstracted tone sweeps, filter house techniques taken back to minimalist basics; before the brief music-box coda of “Train Of Gerda”, Colleen set adrift in a world of stumbling, rusting percussive machinery, calls time.
My Frequencies, When We may not flaunt its wares with garish insouciance, like Moll Flanders titillating with the citrus fruit at her bosom; but like so many of the albums that end up welded to your turntable, it keeps on enticing you back for more exploration, further interaction. It occasionally raises a grin and equally occasionally, an eyebrow; it’s varied in its approach yet thoroughly cohesive.
If I were to summate in one adjective only: it’s an immensely thoughtful record.
Mapstation’s My Frequency, When We will be released by Bureau B on digital download, CD and vinyl on February 26th; you can pre-order your copy from the label, here.