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Wednesday, Oct 1 2003
Computers are typically used for organizing content and creating order (no surprise that in Spanish they're called ordenadores). But two new albums of German electronica, released domestically on Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey, use computers to make more chaos, not less. That both are side projects might account for the degree of freedom found in each. Lithops is the occasional solo venture of Mouse on Mars' Jan St. Werner, while So is a collaboration between glitch maestro Markus Popp, better known as Oval, and the Japanese musician Eri. Previously, Popp and St. Werner were themselves collaborators in the digital duo Microstoria, and the burbly, besmirched, crumbs-in-the-keyboard messiness of that project informs both of these albums. But Lithops and So ultimately pursue radically different approaches to escaping the gridded regularity of more conventional electronic music.

Unlike So, Lithops, for instance, isn't afraid of drum machines; Scrypt opens with strafing, overdriven percussion samples sequenced into tight, grinding loops. But escape is found in the vertical axis: While rhythm holds time prisoner, St. Werner's free-associating melodic elements -- sour guitars, synthesized flutes, and melodica -- whip up a dense whirlwind of tone that shoots straight up and out of the tune's horizontal drag. So, in contrast, drifts untethered from the get-go, spinning and spitting sparks, as samples of voice, guitar, and slide-whistle go careening across an oiled surface of static.

There's something profoundly "natural" about Popp and Eri's lazy, digital folk music: Languid melodies and improvised bursts of tone bob sluggishly along, bumping and scraping like bergs in a frozen river; it sounds less composed than simply spontaneous, an eruption of the divine from the profane realm of copper and silicon. But Lithops' music, considerably less tranquil, comes closer to the sublime. The swollen expanse of horns and synthesizers on "Shift in Structure" and "Folio Final" recalls So's rosy aurora borealis, but drum-machine-propelled tracks like "Attached" and "Thrash Application" (built on short, subtle samples of grindcore) explore the limits of rhythm programming, intertwining the binary stricture of sequenced beats with the unpredictable vagaries of the human pulse to create a hybrid beast that bleeps and breathes. Such genetic dark arts, it seems, open up a world of wild uncertainty, howling with feedback and torn asunder by opposing forces. But there's a logic lurking deep inside that invites you in. Scrypt is a wormhole to the pop music of another world, "catchy" like a net or a virus, enormous, unpredictable, and unspeakably beautiful.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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