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Machinefabriek: "De Jonge Jaren"; "Glisten"; "Blank Grey Canvas Sky"; "Slovensko"

img  Tobias

No matter how hard an artist tries, there will always be those who, by default, consider his back catalogue „more ambitious“, „less commercial“ or simply „better“ than his more recent releases. Against all conventional wisdom, Rutger Zuydervelt has magically escaped this fate, if only because the breakneck-pace of his release schedule and the limited print runs of his earliest publications have meant that only a select group of die-hard fans can claim to truly be familiar with a representative portion of his back catalogue at all. At the same time, it would take a deaf man to ignore the quite astounding development he has made since starting to work under the machinefabriek-moniker. From the colourful concretions of his self-titled 2004-debut, performed on a playful collection of instruments (ranging from Toy Pianos to Saxophone) to 2008's „Dauw“ on Dekorder, a preliminary acme culiminating in the epic 25-minute one-track-galaxy „Singel“, Zuydervelt has gone through various phases, always following his instincts first but nonetheless continually refining his style towards a minimal, melodious and moody concoction of Electronica, Folk and Contemporary Composition.

And yet, it is hard to deny the brittle charm of „De Jonge Jaren“, an 18-track collection of long out-of-print pieces written between 2001 and 2004, partly for predecessor-project Flex. „Pop Songs and Beats“ is what the press release calls this free-to-download sampler and accordingly, almost all of the material here is heavily song-oriented, with melancholic Guitar chords bouncing off groovy, yet sparse and stoic drum-machine- and bass-patterns. Despite the prominent use of quirky robotics, „Good News“, with its dreamy licks and moony aaahs, autumnal anthem „Action“ or the programatically titled, heartwrenching ballad „Song“ are essentially two-minute short Indie-Rock tunes without words. By relying foremost on intuition, improvisation and the emotional essence of the moment, Zuydervelt has created a highly personal vocabulary, which steers clear of all too obvious references – even though the long instrumental introductions to some of The Cure's mid-phase oeuvre do occasionally come to mind.

Still, a cornucopia of seemingly unspectacular miniatures, some of them no longer than one and a half minutes, as well as a string of more textural and daring pieces already discreetly hint at the equally important experimental side of machinefabriek. Zuydervelt doesn't even have to refer to outright Noise, a genre he has been wrongly been associated with despite some distortion-drenched stage-apperances and his undeniable fascination with its energy and physicality, to effortlessly extend his palette to industrial soundscapes, jazzy shuffles, euphoric climaxes, glitchy cuts n crackle and sympathetically bleepy Acid. The impression one gets after immersing oneself in his „young years“ is that everything was possible, nothing deemed too outlandish or leftfield, no idea too far-fetched and no arrangement too wild. The sketchy nature of some of these pieces is not only offset by the cinematic shimmer of the production, but actually works in their advantage: Like digital 7inches, they can be listened to again and again without ever fully revealing their secrets.

Even though the obvious Pop-factor of „De Jonge Jaren“ made Zuydervelt's oeuvre stand out with great clarity, he increasingly emphasised the subtle Folk-influence in his work over the years while pushing it gently towards the shores of Ambient, Drones and even Neo-Classical, considerably enriching the listening experience in the process. Today, his  style has all the depth and ambition of Sound Art, while combining it with an unusual degree of warmth, harmony, sensitivity and an upfront emotionality. More and more, his work is centring around a quality often found lacking in the repertoire of many colleagues: A remarkable talent at turning a collection of inspiring songs into a seamless album and a selection of loose tracks into considerably more than the sum of its parts.

„Blank Grey Canvas Sky“, a collaboration with Peter Broderick of Eftenklang released towards the end of 2009, is a case in point. With a little help from friends like Adam Selzer and Nils Frahm, the duo embarks on a weightless 42-minute-long journey beyond the restrictions of conventional genre-definitions. Glowing Piano-harmonies form the steady backbone to an otherwise perpetually transforming album encompassing tender ensemble-settings, Philip-Glass-like pulsations, quiet soundscapes, resonant organ-drones and self-forgotten acoustic Guitar pickings. Individual tracks all have their distinct personality, yet it is the way in which they build from the ashes of their predecessor and ebb away into their follow-up, the way everything is delicately and almost casually connected which makes „Blank Grey Canvas Sky“ (a reference to the lyrics of „Rain“: „In the autumn time when the sky is a blank grey canvas, I don't wanna paint on it“) a sweeping auditory experience and lends it both a hypnotic tension arch and a spellbinding narrative.

Developing a strong pull, the album feels like a single symphonic movement held together by themes and timbres. This notion is reinforced by the prominent position of „Blank Grey“, an almost a quarter of an hour long proposition of loose Guitar strings, radio static, metallic glitches, distant feedback and glorious one-note impulses building up to a darkly glistening climax, before lapsing into complete silence and returning as a whispering ghost at the end. Considered something of a nuisance by some commentators, the piece is in fact both a necessary counterpoint and a compositional mirror, in which the entire record is reflected in an opaque twilight, as if trying to remember itself in a confused fever-dream. It is a gateway the listener needs to pass through before being released purged and reborn in the sweetness of closer „Homecoming“ as well as an important sign that neither artist is shying away from conflict in order to attain their goal: Telling a story which feels like it's never been told before.

As obviously appealing as the machinefabriek/Broderick-line-up may be, it is possibly „Glisten“, which shows Zuydervelt's aptitude at arranging most clearly. For this, another co-operative work, after all, he was initially sent no more than a couple of Guitar-recordings revolving around various instrumental techniques by Australian artist Tim Catlin. Remarkably, there doesn't seem to have been any clear-cut separation between editing the material and shaping the album here: All nine pieces are of stringent minimalism, focusing with mantric sharpness on a single idea and never following it for longer than its natural conclusion. At the same time, it is this almost obsessive concentration which binds these outwardly unconnected scenes into a silent vortex of frightful gravitational power. Like a stumbling sleepwalker driven by shamanic visions, the album progresses from one neon-lit sound episode to the next and with each step, the intensity of the work increases to a point where madness and utter excitement can no longer be separated.

In a way, none of these sequences ever really goes anywhere, a sensation underlined by a quartet of shorter tracks taking the album from its middle to final installment „Glisten 2“. Instead, the music rests in the moment in a succession of surreal scenes. The eery, unreal feeling conveyed by the majority of the material only serves to emphasise the occasional moments of pure and undilluted beauty seldomly consisting of more than a few glassy Guitar-arpeggios and a deep, sonorous Bass-swell or a warmly radiating field of harmonics. At a mere 35 minutes this is a concise effort, but that takes nothing away from its haunting and unsettling impact and its addictive qualities – which, in itself, must be considered a compliment of the highest order in relation to an album of such determinedly uncompromising intensity.

It can thus convincingly be argued, that the most recent machinefabriek-pieces are, in fact, even more ambitious and even less commercial (if that words makes any sense here at all) than his earliest material. Delectably presented 7inch „Slovensko“ was even built entirely from field recordings collected while on vacation. Akin to the work of late genre-master Luc Ferrari, these two side-spanning tracks can be understood as „musique anecdotique“ - as collages assembled from a variety of different takes, which nonetheless constitute a new, seamless reality in the listener's mind. At all times, the contrast between near-chaotic semblances and mindbogglingly proficient sonic artifacts is at the heart of this music: On the A-side, a near-chaotic multimorph of anything from peaceful beach scenes, heavily reverbed hammering and dark-ambient-strings flows into a sequence of pitched noises culled from painfully tightening metallic wires.

The flipside is more dramatic, nervously jumping between starkly contrasting moods, before culminating in a finale of cloudy drones. The complete opposite of aural photography, this is very much music in the radio-play-tradition, with the audience being invited to make up their own plot. Even though nothing here is fundamentally revolutionary per se, „Slovensko“ is rendered unique by the way in which pure field recordings and pitched material overlap and intersect. The world is sound – it may seem like a cliche on paper, but it never does on this delicious little treasure of a record.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Machinefabriek
Homepage: Fang Bomb Records
Homepage: Low Point Records
Homepage: Eat Sleep Repeat Records

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