February 21, 2003

Rubato get romantic (so to speak)

Mille Plateaux has always paired theory with practice, writing artistic manifestoes that claim intellectual allegiances with the likes of Gille Deleuze and Felix Guattari, while releasing audacious electronic music that attempts to shatter every container that tries to hold it. Just visit their Web site and you will see how seriously they take themselves.

Of the artists in their roster, the most vocal in his revolutionary sentiments is critical-theory-spouting Terre Thaemlitz. I am thinking specifically of his last album for Mille Plateaux, on which he explained the presence of a Billy Joel sample by claiming his intent was to incite nostalgia in the listener even while deferring ad infinitum the fulfillment of that nostalgia by constantly distorting and "regressing" the sample. It would be easy to write this all off as pretentiousness, as Thaemlitz attempting to compensate for some musical lack within his oeuvre, but that would miss the mark entirely. The truth of the matter is that his textual and musical output interact in fascinating ways, sometimes affirming and occasionally negating each other, but always lending each other new contours, vague outlines that might be misunderstood otherwise.

Nevertheless, Thaemlitz's assertion of the thematic terrain of his latest work is ultimately too broad to be exhausted on an hour-long album. He writes that Lovebomb is about Love of religion. Love of country. Love of family," but also "Love of the hunt, the cruise, the pick-up, the kill, the score, the screams, the fists, the knives, the spit, the shoves, the tumbles down stairs." And while Lovebomb uncannily manages to capture both the beauty of love and the menace of repressive regimes, reactionary violence, and so on, the album is not expansive enough to express every facet of every type he lists.

From any other critical view than the absurdly high expectations Thaemlitz has of himself, however, Lovebomb is a stunning achievement. Thaemlitz uses interstitial silence in a more profound way than any other artist I can think of, and so consistently defies the listener's expectation as to make inconsistency the only definable pattern on the album.

"Between Empathy and Sympathy is Time" sets the tone for the rest of the album, using a sample from Radio Freedom, the broadcasting voice of the African National Congress (the revolutionary group in South Africa that struggled to end Apartheid). What is strange about Thaemlitz's use of this sample is that he does not situate it in an otherwise militant track. Despite lines like, "the path of compromise that has been taken by the traitors and puppets is not open to us," the track sounds nothing like a call to arms. Instead, Thaemlitz distorts the sample into a computerized and melodic form, both parodying the revolutionary sentiments of the speaker and accenting their beauty.

Lovebomb is a thoroughly "difficult" album--not in the Merzbowian sense, but because it makes such grand claims and is comprised almost entirely of vocal samples and ambient static. It therefore requires a devoted and dedicated listener. For those few souls, Lovebomb is a thoroughly engaging listen, but as an aesthetic object and as an intellectual challenge. Let's just hope that Thaemlitz stops releasing so many Rubato albums and keeps up his fantastic experimental/ambient output.