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REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Blast’ album reissue, 2008 (“let the music fall inwards”)

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

Disciplines become traps: beautiful sounds become honey-traps. This can be more obvious along certain musical paths than others. Two particularly susceptible paths are ambient-synth playing and the underground swell of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. The former can drift towards being a proliferating mass of lonely cells; each of them seeking an individual voice but often, obliviously, stuck in identical textures, wallowing in parallel. The latter follows a rigorous playing method and lifestyle which borders on benevolent culthood. While this banishes the shapeless flab which often devils ambient music, it can err in the other direction. At its best, the Craft births and burnishes exceptional players: at its worst, it produces musicians who devote themselves to obsessively burnishing a constant reiteration of stern, generic Fripp stylings.

When touch-guitarist Markus Reuter (an accomplished Crafty, and part of the Crafty-dominated Europa String Choir) encountered former Subsonic Experience electronics-coaxer Bernhard Wöstheinrich and formed centrozoon, the team-up had conceptual and practical lineage from both the Crafty discipline and the ambient flood. On top of that, by the time they released their debut album ‘Blast’ in 2000, there wasn’t anything especially unusual in what (on paper) they offered – an alliance of mutant fretboard work and left-field synth-noise, stretched and softened into a minimal ambience. In chasing that direction, centrozoon were following a path which had been trodden since the mid-’70s and the days of… well, Fripp & Eno.

Their peculiar triumph (which is clear even eight years later, with this expanded reissue) was that ‘Blast’ escaped all of the expected pitfalls and mudbanks. It’s not that Markus and Bernhard simply brazened it all out; nor did they overwhelm their listeners by assuming wracked and exaggerated musical personalities. Instead, they opted to simply get out of the way. With minimal shepherding, they let the music fall inwards of its own accord. This sounds like abandoning responsibility, but it’s not. Ultimately, and with the right kind of awareness and attitude, it’s a very effective way of letting the music take its own shape.

On a superficial listen, ‘Blast’ isn’t an obvious leap into the unknown; nor is it immediately shocking, then or now. Each of the four pieces on the original release could conceivably see the same use as other ambient experiments – a gloss for cosmic afternoons; sonic wrappings for art installations; chemical soundtracks for intellectual stoners on introverted afternoons. As for immediate originality, let’s say that Fripp fans enthralled by the oceanic, ambient-improvised textures of Soundscaping will find plenty of pleasure here. In particular, the widening ice-vapour agglomerations of Markus’ Warr Guitar textures in Empire are an immediate homecoming. As they stretch near-subliminal fingers out into the void, they’re subtly transformed by Bernhard’s lullaby synth-pulse; moving from austerity into something like the hopeful whistling of a small boy in the rain, safe in a shapeless optimism.

Transformation is a key process here. Markus’ extreme processing and honing of his Warr Guitar touch-playing into textural drifts and folds, all sounds of strings and fingers worn away; Bernhard’s unschooled musical impulses becoming constructive. Most significantly, their effect upon each other – formalist liberated by upsetter, randomiser cradled by knower.

Markus might dominate Empire – however passively – but it’s Bernhard (the part-time abstract painter) who leads the more baleful Sign. Here, the low buzzes and wah-swells of synth gradually open up into a mournful piece of grand European ambience. For Crafty guitarists and King Crimson fans alike, this is the most Frippertronical piece on the album. That said, Markus eschews any of those intensely compressed Frippish emotions in his playing. Instead, his touch-guitar yields little more than a distant, echoing subway-tunnel ambience. It pulls the listening ear after it, as if co-opting it into the pursuit of an invisible stranger who’s only just out of reach; or a far-off footfall which must be caught up with.

Even this early in their career, it’s the ability to trigger that kind of unsettling mood and engagement in the listener that set centrozoon apart, and eased them out of those Crafty/ambient straitjackets. Their eerie approach to layered tonality may have had its similarities to the Fripp approach, but it’s been taken a few steps further along. Blank and unsettling, it feels like a kind of purposeful decay, a deliberate whittling-away of what underpins expectations and security: hollowing it out only slightly, just enough to make a change that’s sensed. As a listener, you venture out onto it, but the sound of the settling structure disturbs you.

In many respects, time has left ‘Blast’ strangely untouched, and for all the right reasons. The Fripp & Eno analogy still holds, not so much over sound and mood, but over how Markus’ discipline and rigorous self-schooling and Bernhard’s iconoclastic instincts meet and envelop each other. Even at this stage, they’re astonishingly well integrated. It’s difficult to look at their work looking for cracks in the method. Unified and unruffled, it stares back at you, and it’s you that blinks first.

More self-conscious (or perverse) than the other tracks on the record, the hooded, atmospheric Sense cops a few tricks directly from 1980s art-pop. Sparse lines and pared-down chords of electric piano recall the pairing of Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian. A upfront electro-pulse (OMD meets ’90s techno) is carved up into a jazz shimmy, while Bernhard’s bloopy electronic punctuation sounds like nothing so much as a Simmons drum set catching the cheesy hiccups. All of these are eventually upended when Markus sets aside his Invisible Man approach in favour of a growing grind of slow-motion garage-static. In parallel, Bernhard’s underlay of sound gradually becomes more and more unstable and less and less comforting; eventually it hones itself into a subtly disturbing sheath of noise.

On the original ‘Blast’, Sense was the disruptive moment. Power – a held-back track from the album sessions, now restored to the reissue – demonstrates that it wasn’t as much of a one-off as it seemed. Post-‘Blast’, centrozoon would begin several years of thorough engagement with dance music (actually, a kind of wilful grappling) which would flower in 2003 with the thumping techno-prog drive of their ‘Cult Of: Bibiboo’ album. Three years earlier, Power anticipates this and delivers an early take. Its rocking knock of rhythm and Bernhard’s dirty twangs of synth are a shift towards the dance-floor, away from icy dreams. Markus’ misty blurs of Warr playing are more direct and sharpened than they are elsewhere on the album, roaming purposefully behind the electronics like a searching headlight. The musical layers climb eerily, growing into an alarming constellation of eyes as Bernhard works in a march-rhythm built from a racheting percussion pulse. Nine minutes along, the beat courses away and the music planes on into ambience and a slow fade of atonal spirals.

Placed at the end of the reissue, Power supplants the title track of ‘Blast’ as its grand finale. Drawing attention to the band’s drive onwards to its dance phase makes some historic sense, but it also displace the album’s original emotional core. After the disruptions of Sense, Blast doesn’t immediately seem disturbing. For a long time it remains as beautifully eerie but conventional textural ambience. It hovers around the same close, elongated and barely-there notes like steam in a cathedral aisle, coiling itself backwards in the winking lights from the synths.

Over seventeen minutes Markus and Bernhard gradually, imperceptibly marshal the potential of horrific awe that’s within the music until it’s staring you in the face. Its intensity is subliminal, its aghast tone somehow removed from imminent peril. The horror here is backwards-looking, specifically European and instinctive, reeking of a darker history without ever clarifying what that is. This could be just soundtracking; but if so centrozoon have found silent films of overwhelming cataclysm to channel the music for. At a pinch, it could be cathedral music – if so, the building’s traumatised ghosts have crept out for a whirling pageant of blood and fire. It could be a troubled, unanswerable requiem; if so, this one’s for a calamity that’s overtaken even God, even memory. There’s something about it that emphasises the absence of words, of the shapes that make sense. It’s less the blast, and more the invisible and unexpected shockwave – like a glimpse over the shoulder at the terrible beauty of impelled destruction.

In the coming years, centrozoon would prove themselves far more mercurial and direct than the music on ‘Blast’ suggests. Compared to the hammering pulse of ‘…Bibiboo’ or the leaping, detailed art-pop of ‘Never Trust The Way You Are’, ‘Blast’ now sounds like hidden music, or perhaps hiding music: Bernhard and Markus remote almost to the point of vanishing, keeping their skills on a low bleed. Even here, though, there’s a determined stamp that set them apart from the noodlers and set them on course – but that’s not all. There’s still something special about ‘Blast’ and its ability to etch such hauntings out of such hushed musicality.

centrozoon: ‘Blast’
Unsung Records/Inner Knot Records, UR004CD (4260139120307)
CD/download album reissue
Released: 2008 (originally released 2000)

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

Buy it from:
Iapetus Records or Burning Shed (CD); or Bandcamp (download).

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

September 2001 – EP reviews – centrozoon’s ‘The Divine Beast’ (“a kind of relay race across trance territory, whipping up a tautly disciplined psychedelic frenzy”)

27 Sep

centrozoon: 'The Divine Beast'

centrozoon: ‘The Divine Beast’

There are some musicians who claim to consider themselves aerials, with their feet lightly arched off the ground and their heads inclined into some kind of ether, through which they conduct the music and songs which are looking for a means to get to earth. Robert Fripp is one of these claimants, but whether his occasional disciples centrozoon think the same way is questionable.

centrozoon’s touch-guitarist Markus Reuter is a graduate of Fripp’s school of Guitar Craft, and previously played with the Craft-inspired Europa String Choir, but an enquiring look at the Centrozoon website reveals little in the way of earnest, wintry Frippian mystique (though much in the way of dry German humour). If centrozoon (of whom the other half is synth-and-beats man Bernhard Wöstheinrich) are channelling music, it’s of a much more liberating and less clotted variety than Fripp has been downloading into King Crimson over the past few years.

There’s certainly a latter-day Crimsonic element to their work – the rich swathes of Soundscapes-style ambient tone colour, the wild electronic percussion, and the brassy or droning sounds that Markus employs while soloing on his Warr Guitar. But there’s less of the tightness that makes and sometimes mars King Crimson’s music; and a more thoroughly integrated use of the clubland elements of trance, techno and garage that have recently been informing Crimsonic offshoots like BPM&M and ProjeKCts Three and X.


 
Thúsgg (Skinny and Crazed Mix) possesses that analogue-synth gastric twist that regularly seeps up into club music. Bernhard launches a rapid, broken-beat squirt-funk-and-dripping-water cave ambience, through which Markus flies big wheeling paths of Frippian improvisation in unearthly arpeggios. But barely halfway through, most of the beats quietly fall away: Markus’s chilly howl of overdriven Warr briefly rises, saxophone-like, into free-time jazz questioning, before both centrozooners dissolve into a duet of shifting ambient lambency.


 
The sixteen-minute extract from ‘The Cult of: Bibiboo’ shows an even broader example of centrozoon’s fusion of club culture and evolutionary rock textures. The duo engage in a kind of relay race across trance territory, whipping up a tautly disciplined psychedelic frenzy. It flowers from auroral ambience through thunder-drum percussion and what sounds like nods to the ‘X-Files’ theme, to warm and constellatory ambient drifts, cut by flares of harmonised Warr and quizzical harmonies.

Five-and-a-half minutes in, it’s become a glittering chillout zone covered in singing glassy loops. By nine minutes, Markus’s weaving Soundscapes are rubbing up against clipped artillery shell boom-beats, and by eleven minutes he’s razoring the starry sky with saw-toothed shapes and snarls. By the thirteen-minute marker Bernhard’s thundering distorted beats have forced Markus back into the angelic role, and they finally coast onto a home stretch of firework bangs and prismatic orchestration.

Tagging all this rich invention as “Fripp on Ecstasy” seems cheap, but it’ll do for now as we start to tune in to the powerful, thrilling hybrid music centrozoon have to offer.

centrozoon: ‘The Divine Beast’
self-released, CZCD01 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released:
September 2001
Get it from: download from Bandcamp or Amazon Music
centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

February 2001 – album reviews – centrozoon’s ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ (“miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon”)

27 Feb
centrozoon: 'Sun Lounge Debris'

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’

Interbreeding the subliminal and the upfront, German ambient duo centrozoon first showed up in 2000 with the self-camouflaging, superbly effective ‘Blast‘. Icy and transformative (an album of elusive, subtle yet uncompromising music for a dissolving world), it was a deliberate hollow grail; an eerily crafted emptiness masking or bypassing outright emotion. The occasional fragmentary synth-pop hiccup broke this rule and humanised the duo (like a brief giggle or fart in the meditation), but ‘Blast’ was mostly all hints and invisible statements – a ghost-impression of grandiosity, a sumptuous erasing.

The six tracks of the follow-up, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ (put out on the quick-release art-rock label Burning Shed rather than, like ‘Blast’, on the more impassively arty DiN) turn out to be the product of a single day’s recording. With ambient groups being what they are, and the rapidly diminishing returns of minimal textures, it’d be fair to expect a series of belated out-takes. Markus Reuter and Bernhard Wöstheinrich could have exposed themselves as blanded-out or hopelessly jumbled: at best, retreading the magnificent displaced atmospherics of ‘Blast’. Fortunately, centrozoon‘s taste and inspiration are very much intact, and they’ve added some healthy lust and humour to the mix.

Admittedly, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ doesn’t have the quiet and eerie impact of ‘Blast’. The disordered-lifestyle title makes that implicit, whether the centrozooners are suggesting a J.G. Ballard dystopia or simply admitting that they, too, sometimes like to lie around in a mess of crisps, magazines and tanning lotion. The music – disparate and different in its swatch of moods – also indicates that centrozoon aren’t prepared to plough that same impeccable furrow as they did on their debut. In certain respects, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ resembles a collection of miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon. However, any randomness is rapidly offset by the connective, collective intelligence which centrozoon exhibit, and by their clear eagerness to develop from their previous wintry and self-absenting perfection and move towards questions and delicate musical quirks.

‘Sun Lounge Debris’ pieces come, roughly speaking, in pairs. Two of the tracks, Tales Of Children In Trees and Harvest Girls, reveal depths (or, more accurately, widths) to centrozoon which have previously gone unnoticed. More on those later. The two remaining pairs take inspiration from the texture-based constructions of ‘Blast’ but move the ideas elsewhere.

From the throwaway ironic/pedantic titles, one of these ambient pairs suggests game-playing at work; toying with expectations. This One Will Please You could’ve been a ‘Blast’ outtake, were it not for its warmth – it’s a cosmic Mistral, entirely composed of atmosphere, thoroughly sunny and swimmy. The second – the displeaser – is darker, but where ‘Blast’ suggested urban dissolution (chilliness, shapes of buildings yielding to vapour) This One Won’t Please You implies some more rural outlines. More forbidding than its brother, it possesses a similar softness: perhaps a musical impression of the darkness hollowed out beneath the forest roof. The sinister side is provided in a sense of waiting for something unknown, something as yet unshaped in the mind’s eye.

Less cohesive – but bolder – than the Please tracks, another pair of centrozoon experiments jolts the project into more radical dynamics. In Sable Orbit is the most immediately striking of the two. As mushroom clouds of pipe-organ sounds are put through the MIDI wringer, pitches are set afloat in choppy spasms so that they billow in a vast and giddy skyward swell: a scrap of Messaien nightmare trapped in a Zeppelin. Several Chilled Wives follows the same approach with a little less alarm. Beyond its lazy, inexorable and monstrous lurches a circular harmony reveals itself, like the boundary of a horizon.

In almost all of these it’s unclear as to which noises are coming off Markus’ heavily processed and looped Warr Guitar and which emanate from the voice-banks of Bernhard ‘s synthesizers. In spite of their very different musical motivations – Bernhard spontaneous and iconoclastic, Markus scholarly and studied – both centrozooners are able to morph together without an evident join, as they did for much of the frosted blend of ‘Blast’. Harvest Girls – one of the two serious centrozoon digressions on the album, and the one which gives ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ its explosive, bliss-struck opening – is very different, and shows us what happens when centrozoon let themselves fall open into those two halves.

It’s revealing. While Bernhard blots an immense, swirling, stained-glass flange noise from his keyboard onto the sky, Markus lets rip with a richly melodic overdriven buzz of solo – an ecstatic Robert Fripp whoop. This is the polar opposite to his usual textural playing, with its concealing nature – this is a lusty, ascending and liberated firework spray of rock tensions, as healthy and randy as a summer party. The nasal-toned scurries and wails are closer to the excitement of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ or to Joe Satriani’s triumphal histrionics then they are to more expected influences like Fripp or of Trey Gunn, with their devotional dissonance. The joy is unfeigned, but unashamedly synthetic in its plastic textures: you can hear centrozoon revelling in the fact. In response to Markus’ blaze of guileless prog-rock romanticism, Bernhard sends a cheesy synth-pad of concerto strings rebounding off the clouds. Apparently intent on mutilating any of the dodgy presets which he can entice out of his gear, he also offers up an undulating bass synth boom plus a taffy-stretched swathe of electronica which sounds like an evaporating glass harmonica.

Harvest Girls could be centrozoon trying on the bristly mantle of rock piggery and loving it; but Tales Of Children In Trees propels them forward into the world of dance. Those smooth swirls of ambience and the synth chuckles could have come from anywhere else in their ambient past and present, but they’re all tossed on a hustle of jazz breakbeats: a thinking pummel, assured and dominant. As an album closer, it suggests that centrozoon are already off their loungers and in fervid motion. If you came by to relax and slob out, you’re already too late. Next chapter engaging…

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’
Iapetus Records/Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 21st February 2001

  • Preceded by: Blast.
  • Followed by: ‘The Divine Beast’.

Buy it from:
Free download from Iapetus Records or Bandcamp. Originally released by Burning Shed as a CD-R album.

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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