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Rajko Müller's choice of artist alias, Isolée, means "isolated" in French. But a better choice of name -- at least after his recent, second album, Wearemonster -- might have been Legion, as in the famous biblical citation, "My name is Legion: for we are many."
Saturday, Sept. 17
True to its title, Wearemonster throbs with inner voices, both in concert and at odds with each other. Despite nominally 4/4 dance beats, it's impossible to peg the album to a single style: It's a little bit house, a little bit disco, and, yes, a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. But the record never foregrounds eclecticism at the expense of its own internal logic; the product of several years in the studio, it's evidence of the way that the electronic musician's solitary craft often gives rise to a schizophonic result, a Frankenstein's monster that's sutured together out of innumerable edits, where samples are piled atop one another and synthesizers, drum machine patterns, and digital effects supply the thread to sew up the seams. But Isolée's creation is also a testament to the way that, in the right hands, a kind of guiding consciousness emerges to unify the pieces -- the fabled ghost in the machine, if you will.
If the album is a monster, veering at times dangerously out of control, for once it's a benevolent being. Every freakish fable worth its salt has a moral, and while Wearemonster's lessons may be simple, they make themselves heard with every unexpected transition, no matter how fluid or jarring: "Dance music" need not be formulaic, and the computer, as a compositional tool, is only as limiting as the mind (and ears) behind it.
For my money, it's the best album this year. Heard at home, in the club, and (especially?) driving up I-5 from San Francisco to Portland, where it tested the speakers in my rental car, it is a malleable, complex masterpiece, a generous shape-shifter that presents you with a new bauble from its pocket every few bars or so; while you're marveling at the shiny, unexpected toy, it changes form yet again. There hasn't been a more seductive bogeyman since Beauty fell for the Beast.
"I initially had the idea [for the title] because I was working on tracks where I was using voices in a strange way," recalls Müller, but as the record began to morph and mutate, so did the beastly theme. "I came to feel like the tracks themselves were monsters, because I'd worked so long on them, and I couldn't step back from them," he says.
The songs, which he terms "deformed" fusions of innumerable ideas that just kept branching elastic new limbs, took on lives of their own, and it was all their creator could do to stand by and watch. The end result, says Müller, benefited from the input of his label executives, who counseled him as to what to keep and what to discard. But it certainly doesn't sound like the kind of project that's been decided upon by committee. There's nary a hit single to be found; any given track might work in the club, but it would take a skilled DJ to squeeze it in between more conventional dance-floor bangers.
And as an album, it flows the way few long-players of anygenre do. The dusky mood, rhythmic strangeness, and weird, sad funk of tracks two, three, and four, especially, suggest a compositional intent that doesn't end with the individual song. The album is far too idiosyncratic to be the product of anything but a single consciousness -- and the more you listen to it, the more you doubt that it's even Müller's consciousness. How could he have dreamed up, to give only one example, the dovetailing chords that lead "My Hi-Matic" from dirge to rave anthem? It's that ghost in the machine all over again, its heart thumping unmistakably beneath the motherboard.
Perhaps it's for this reason that Wearemonster has garnered the kind of acclaim that few electronic artist albums do: Affixed to the CD (available only on import, from Frankfurt, Germany's Playhouse label) is a sticker gushing with fevered testimonials from artists as diverse as Tiga, DJ Hell, and Tommie Sunshine. And a certain New York record label, a prime mover behind the "dance-punk" revival, has even been rumored to be in negotiations with Playhouse over a U.S. release. It would make for a great Pixar story: Isolée and his monster are making many new friends.
Even if Müller isn't as solitary as his name might suggest, he's followed an atypical path in his ascent to house-music semistardom. (In Germany and Spain he graces magazine covers, but in the U.S. he'll be lucky to sell more than a thousand copies of his album, at least until it receives a domestic release.) Born in Frankfurt, he spent part of his childhood in Algeria, where he attended French-speaking schools; his name derives from that linguistic legacy. In the '80s he was a fan of synth-pop, but then gravitated toward rock; by the early '90s, Müller had turned on to the sounds of house and techno that were captivating Frankfurt and Germany as a whole, and like many DIY-inclined young Germans, he invested in a few rudimentary pieces of gear and began aping those omnipresent strains.
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