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Tobias.: Leaning Over Backwards

img  Tobias Fischer

Polish Pianist Krystian Zimerman once claimed that even navigating through the most complex sonatas was easy once you realised every note carried meaning. It is a statement which would just as easily fit the debut full-length by Tobias Freund: Nothing is taken for granted on Leaning Over Backwards, not a single sound remaining unreflected and unquestioned. Realised with a tiny hardware setup of vintage machines and through a string of studio-collaborations with friends rather than long-distance file exchanges – the album features Hercules and Love Affair's Aerea Negrot, Margaret Dygas, Max Loderbauer and Atom™'s Uwe Schmidt among others - perfection, here, arises not so much from symmetry, steadfastness and spectacular thematic evolution but from motivic concentration and finding a personal path of working with one's materials. No wonder, then, that the record has managed to enamour myriads of music fans as much as it has alienated scores of others – when I recently visited Berlin's famous Hardwax record store, Leaning Over Backwards was easily the most played record of the day, with equal amounts of customers enthusiastically buying and ardently dismissing it. Within a genre which seemed to have systemically suppressed controversy by splitting up into a cornucopia of sub-styles, it was both the one  overarching statement as it was the biggest common divider.

The reason why so many are feeling bored or provoked is probably because Leaning Over Backwards is still, in at least one of its various functionalities, very much a techno-album in the original meaning of the word, music with a function and purpose and written to be played on a towering sound system: Aptly titled pieces like „Party Town“, gently pierced by a perpetual, offbeat organ ostinato, or more electro-oriented „Free no. 1“ work best at ear-spitting levels and by shuffling a handful of rhythmical and spacy elements on top of a mercilessly pounding beat. At the same time, this almost caricaturesque adherence to the conventions of club-culture is merely a foil for a set of much deeper and intriguing operations, which would all but certainly escape the hedonist dancer. Casually listening to opener „Girts“, for example, would suggest that nothing whatsoever is happening here for a full five minutes. What initially appears to be little more than a DJ tool, however, reveals a world of micro-manipulations on the molecular substructure of the track, as part of which the hihats, occasionally running in- but mostly out of sync on the left and right audio channel like soloists in a jazz recording, are continuously re-arranged into a cornucopia of seemingly improbable patterns. Fascinating for some, these operations will undoubtedly remain too subtle, „boring“ or even without meaning to many others.

While „Girts“ makes for a powerful introductory statement, the real centerpiece of the album is eight-minute track of contention „Skippy“, which exemplifies the underlying aesthetics most demonstratively. For its entire duration, Margaret Dygas's loopmachine is obnoxiously blaring out a single vocal simply lined up into a simple and monotonous beat, more than one thousand one hundred times in total, while a deep sub oscillates between the tonalities of F and Bb, like a drugged-out parody of a walking bass. Freund counters Dygas's stoicism with a system of bell-themes, performed both as shimmering droplets in the upper registers as well as richly resounding giant gongs in the lower parts of the frequential spectrum, sparsely spread out across the canvas like tiny sonic islands on a giant ocean. Melodic and rhythmical elements are perpetually taking turns here, short threads of tone being separated by a host of outwardly trivial rhythmical accents, introduced within rapid succession of each other and then recombined more lushly in the later stages of the piece to create a dense and immersive web of interrelations. On the one hand, the piece demonstrates Freund's chops as a sound designer to whom even the most basic building blocks of a piece can turn into Leitmotifs and into an artist's script and signature – you could drop the needle at any point of the track and would still recognise it as instantaneously as you would a Rothko-painting.

On the other, it points at the constant process of inversion which is taking place here, at the auditory illusions and confusions generously baked into the grid. One can take the album's title quite literally: At different stages, Leaning Over Backwards reverses fore- and background, fiction and reality and the relative importance of build-up and climax respectively, conflating beauty and beastliness to a degree that is both irritating and intriguing. The question of perspective is of seminal importance to Freund, who seems to be fascinated by the possibility of creating structures akin to the trompe l'oeil old-lady-young-lady-trick in the visual arts: Depending on how you listen to it, even that seemingly clear-cut sample doesn't appear to be shouting „skippy“ but „isja“ and thus to be creating an entirely different groove. And once you've discovered these multiplicities, they are impossible to ignore, opening up new experiences and veritable „tracks within a track“ at every other corner. Freund, in a way, is stepping outside of the typical debates about minimalism in music, which seem to suggest one were abstaining from or reneging on something by taking things away. Quite contrarily, his approach suggests that if one accepts the possibility of musicality in the most basic elements, the potential of musical relationships actually increases exponentially – thereby creating an unfathomably deep listening experience.

It is telling that Freund has created two different version of the album for the CD- and the vinyl-version of Leaning Over Backwards, each with a discretely different sequencing and a different feel, the former working with a constant change between impulsive and more spacious pieces and the latter venturing into the depth and closing things out with an extended stretch of drone-oriented material. These are outwardly simple operations, yes, but that doesn't make them any less convincing. In the world of Tobias Freund, an idea is still more important than technology, meaning invariably culled from mind, not matter.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tobias Freund
Homepage: Ostgut Ton Recordings

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