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Biosphere: N-Plants

img  Tobias Fischer

Critics and listeners alike have interpreted the work of Geir Jenssen in colourful ways: As a translation of his „arctic“ homeland Norway into music; a minutely crafted and emotional continuation of Eno's pure ambient concept; a melancholic soundtrack to solitude; and even (with reference to his much-revered Fire of the Orks project with Frankfurt's Pete Namlook) a contribution to Nitzsch'ean philosophy. Jenssen himself, who is often, mistakenly it seems, taken for a somewhat over-serious, unhumorous and forever-deep-thinking sceptic, has taken a both more pragmatic and poetic stance. To him, his music was never intended to serve as aural wallpaper but, as he put it in a revealing Invisible-Jukebox-feature for The Wire in August of 2006, as „a painting on a wall that you listen to“. This inevitably discrete difference may explain the amount of conflation his intentions have been prone to. Beauty and ambiance have their place in the Biosphere-universe, but they never come for free: The wall these paintings are hung on is your mind and the as a listener, you need to engage with the compositions, observe, follow and evaluate their unfolding (or resting) in time for them to truly take on meaning.

This is perhaps more true of N-Plants than of any other Biosphere-full-length. If a previous effort like Autour de la Lune, a serene, minimal, whisper-quiet and disturbingly subsensorial release, managed to take the polarities in his oeuvre to their point of highest refinement and peaceful cohabitation, they are now systematically turned inside out and brought to a head-on collision. The remarkable threedimensionality of Jenssen's aural sculptures has been replaced by a more direct and concrete sound, in which merely a few fizzings and hissings create a vague sensation of depth and plasticity. The mysterious intangibility of his arrangements has given way to pieces built on traditional concepts of bass, harmony and melody. And although rhythms have never, strictly speaking, been in a stranger to his oeuvre, beats are staging an unexpectedly upfront comeback here, with stoically linear percussion patterns underpinning more than half of the material. If one's first assessment of N-Plants is therefore one of a somewhat conventional song-cycle pierced by the occasional sonic surprise, then that impression is not entirely incorrect – the album is indeed marked by the friction between amicable atmospheres and ambitious stimulation, between the trivial and the triumphant. And until the very end, the tension between these poles will not be resolved.

As if to serve as markers, the two opening tracks, towering over the other contributions with their eight-minute expansiveness, are expressing this dichotomy most obviously: „Sendai-1“ is all but entirely made up of a gently undulating sequencer pattern played on a xylophone-like synth-sound running through the entire piece, embedded into a soft sonic environment comprising of a cool, crystalline drone and warm, distant string harmonies. The outwardly repetetive nature of the track is a miraculous result of a chain of subtle variations, re-adjustments in dynamic relations as well as an arrangement made up of bewilderingly unadjusted elements: Somewhere in the distance, an almost inaudible high-hat is ticking out of sync and the sequencer line turns out to be  stumbling, stuttering and doubling-up on closer inspection. It is an equally ambitious and beguiling piece which depends as much on its determination to re-invent itself in every single moment as it does on the listener's temporary perspective and involvement. The contrast with subsequent „Shika-1“ could hardly be more striking. Here, Jenssen works with little more than a gently floating three quarter time beat and a richly resonating bass. What sounds as though it could be the beginning of an epically designed waltz quickly reveals itself as an exercise in repetition: After a mere three minutes, Jenssen has already run out of motives and is reverting to muting and un-muting different channels and trying out various combinations of existing elements. There is no sense of development here, not even the faintest trace of progression, save for one or two discretely inserted percussion rolls. Instead, the music keeps spinning and whirring in its private cocoon until it has reached saturation point.

Jenssen once claimed that the sole reason why he moved from techno to ambient in the early 90s was because he simply „got bored with beats“. And yet, the return to the more upfront structures of N-Plants does not retract that statement. Rather, the record is caught – comfortably in one moment, uneasily in the next – right between these genres and the experiences implied by them. The whole architecture of the album, in fact, as part of which the more intricate and complex tracks are immediately juxtaposed with accessible, pure loop-pieces, suggests that it is not each individual piece as such which counts, but the effect created by demonstratively pitting these contrasting approaches against each other. At times, Jenssen seems to be overstretching things, especially when, as on the closing „Fujiko“, he is relying on nothing but a few supposedly narrative samples to do all the talking. And yet, there are moments, when his strategy lends an unexpected emotional force to pieces which would otherwise seem outright trite: Clearly, the two layers manifesting themselves on N-Plants are not just each other's opposites, they also feed from each other, entangled in a symbiotic relationship.

As mentioned, it's a fine line the album is treading. As a listener, you'll certainly have to look closely: If these are indeed aural paintings, then their imagery matters less than the composition of colours, textures and contrasts.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Biosphere
Homepage: Touch

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