Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shed, "The Killer"; Sigur Ros, "Valtari"

Over the past few years, Shed somehow became a beacon of hope for the techno heads.  Every new album was expected to be a watershed moment that would shift and expand the boundaries of techno.  I bought into the hype too, and conditioned myself to expect the moon and the stars.  His last album "The Traveller" certainly aimed high, forgoing the most straightforward 4/4 tempos of his earlier work and dabbling with a different subgenre on nearly every track.  Full marks for the concept, but thumbs in the middle for the execution.  Now, with "The Killer", he's found a middle ground between the ADD/mad scientist approach and more flowing, dancefloor friendly tracks.

Can I just say that "The Killer" is such an awesome title for an album?

"The Killer" is far better than "The Traveller".  By trying less hard to be original, it flows far better and tells a much tighter story.  It starts with a beatless mindfuck track, like a Jeff Mills/Vainqueur hybrid with the percussion filtered out. Then it slides into gritty kick-drum heavy techno with just enough embellishments on top of the standard 4/4 beats to prevent you from zoning out and getting too comfortable out there on the dancefloor.  The pattern repeats, with the weirder, beat-free tracks always thrown in to mix up the pace a little bit, before missing the mark slightly with the more downtempo, hip-hop tinged "VIOMF!/The Filler" and a halfhearted stab at a soulful instrumental house track, "Follow the Leader".  The hits are usually fantastic, and even those slight misses make sense as cool down tracks at the end of the album.

But there's nothing here that marks a shift in how I think about music.  It doesn't mess with your mind like Actress' "R.I.P." does, recycling sounds that haven't been heard on most techno records since a few Warp releases from twenty years ago and twisting them into a vaguely danceable type of lo-fi stew.  However, if you're expecting a watershed moment in music and declare anything less than that to be a failure, then you're hardly being fair to the artist.   Obviously this isn't restricted to dance music, for example, here is one recent, high profile review of that sort (full disclosure: I haven't heard the new Animal Collective album yet).  I'll stand by my comments on Shed from my MUTEK 2010 review -- to paraphrase, what he's doing isn't altogether original, but he does it really, really well.  It's more than enough.


I always feel like I'm repeating myself by writing about Sigur Ros and the way that the media always seems to get it wrong with them.  "Valtari" is beautiful and cinematic and contains many familiar elements of past Sigur Ros albums.  As if sounding like yourself or making stunningly pretty music was some sort of industry crime.  A lot of "Valtari" sounds like extended versions of the twee Disneyland intros and outros to the songs on "Takk ..."  That was their best album, so what's the harm in revisiting it a little bit?

The point is that "Valtari" is a new direction for Sigur Ros -- not a complete revolution in their sound, but an album with a purpose and feel that is wholly distinct from their other albums.  Far from being a band that always relies on the same old tricks, they tend to change direction all the time, and rarely get any credit for it.

"Valtari" is the first ambient record by Sigur Ros.  Most of it doesn't have any vocals, so people can't even recycle the usual falsetto and Hopelandish jokes in lieu of actually writing something thoughtful about their music.  Their last album took a turn toward pop music and featured a few obvious singles, whereas this one doesn't have anything even remotely resembling a radio-friendly (even an indie radio friendly) single, although they have managed to release two singles from it to date (naturally two of the few songs that have some semblance of vocals and drums).   Each song on the album features at least one video by an acclaimed director, an undertaking they termed "The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment", which is the kind of thing that gets you branded as artsy and pretentious if you're Sigur Ros (and a visionary who isn't afraid to take chances, regardless of the success of the project, if you're Bjork or Kanye West, for example).  

"Valtari" is yet another excellent Sigur Ros album.  With less of the things that tend to turn people away from them (made up words, bowed guitar, prog rock meanderings), you'd think that people who have gotten sick of them (or never gave them a chance to begin with) would be willing to give this a listen.  At this point, I think I just feel sorry for people who can't find something to love about them.

No comments: