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V.A.: "Clicks & Cuts 5.0"; Oval: "Oh"

img  Tobias Fischer

Nothing related to Mille Plateaux  will ever be easy. Even though founder Achim Szepanski enjoyed debating Deleuzian philosophy in interviews and always considered his brainchild as far more than a platform for releasing experimental sounds, he was above all an immensely passionate man pushing experimental music far beyond what anyone considered possible. The label's folding in 2004 was not the result of bad management or waning interest but rather of the unfortunate demise of their distributor and „the politics of efa, lawyers and some other people definitely having some criminal aspects“ to them, as Szepanski mentioned online earlier this year. Efforts of reviving the brand in 2005 and 2006 were short-lived and seemed to suggest the chapter had been closed on what may have been one of the most prophetic and influential outfits of the past decades.

So it is with great disappointment that one now sees him openly fall out with the label's new owner Marcus Gabler over the aesthetics and contents of the most recent Mille Plateaux relaunch. Gabler was offered the trademark in 2008 and decided to acquire it as a promising investment and creative challenge through his Second Hand Mailorder Total Recall. Apparently, Szepanski was initially part of the package as an A&R, but from the early stages, there does not seem to have been any mutual understanding as to which direction the revived entity was going to take. „The cooperation didn't work“, Gabler simply explained in a talk with TJ Norris on Igloo Mag, while Szepanski posted an angry response over at the website of Resident Advisor:  „The politics and products of the new "Mille Plateaux" have nothing to do with the aesthetics, politics and music of the original label Mille Plateaux and the theory of Deleuze / Guattari.“

Which, to cut a long story short, is the plain and simple truth. None of the original Mille Plateaux-artists are on board this time around and even visualist  Lia's defining designs have been discarded in favour of a far more object-oriented style of cover imagery. The focus has consciously shifted away from abstractions and put the composer rather than concepts in the driving seat. The initial focus on „the musical work with sound material itself that allows new energies, intensities, to be captured“ has been replaced by a more traditional approach based on clear structures, an open embrace of melody and harmony and an integrative approach in which adjacent styles are invited rather than shunned. „Mille Plateaux 3.0“ and „Clicks & Cuts 5.0“ mark, by any objective measure, a break with the past and herald, for better or worse, a new phase in the label's history. And even though this open rupture with tradition has irritated old-time fans and old-school critics alike, Gabler has never made a secret of his complete ignorance of the workings of electronic music and compared taking over the creative aspect of  the label to a virgin birth.

Anyone expecting a revival, update or progression of what made Mille Plateaux the prototypical experimental Electronica label in the 90s and early new millennium, must therefore, by default, be disappointed. „Clicks & Cuts 5.0“ doesn't carry its subtitle („Paradigm Shift“) for nothing and offers sixteen contributions by artists even the most expert listeners will probably never have heard of. Gabler has literally ploughed through hundreds of demos and thousands of  tracks by the likes of Wyatt Keusch, Scattertape or Yu Miyashita in search of suitable material and his efforts have certainly not been in vain. One should never forget that, at the time the first „Clicks & Cuts“ was released, most journalists had never even heard of Stilluppsteypa, Goem or Kit Clayton, so holding the relative anonymity of the album's artists against it is a strange reproach to say the least.

Besides, even though nothing here even vaguely resembles the revolutionary Mille Plateaux sound, it would also be wrong to conclude that there is no connection at all. The success of the first two volumes of „Clicks & Cuts“ (the second one a massive 3CD-set) mainly consisted in drawing links between artists usually considered singular voices and establishing a scene where there were was once nothing but scattered voices. This recent effort, meanwhile, takes the opposite direction and uncovers how entirely naturally many genres are making use of the aesthetics defined by the pioneers: Industrially flavoured HipHop (Aoki Takamasa: „RN4.09“), Drum n Bass (Loom: „Isolex 03“), Sound-Art (Kiyo: „Bear In. Warm-Noiz“), Electronica (Marow: „e.coli“), apocalyptic IDM (Manathol: „Baketo“), Noise (Kabutogani: „CXEMA“), Dub-infected Techno (Nicolaus: „Inner“) and chaotic Dubstep (bonus track „Eve“ by lodsb) are all part of the equation. And it is interesting to observe how preset plugins are today automatically recreating the detailedly crafted glitches some of the early artists would work on for days.

The fact that none of this is new in a strict sense is a sign of the oversaturated times we're living in, not a conceptual failure. „Clicks & Cuts 5.0“ with all likelihood won't blow your mind or change your perception of music as you knew it. But it is a minutely planned and carefully compiled compilation that offers enough depth to make you want to come back to it and explore its sounds and arrangements again and again. In a time when samplers have mostly been degraded to the status of cheap promo tools, that is much more than anyone could have expected.

It is also fascinating to observe that Gabler's vision of more tangible musicality in a genre traditionally steeped in abstractions, in a way, perfectly mirrors where electronic music is at in the early 21st century. Far away from the hypes and trends of the music business, Oval's Marcus Popp has taken the exact same route for his comeback after almost a decade of public inactivity. Even though Popp's importance for microsampling is generally acknowledged today, it is still shamefully underrated. One should remember, after all, that breakthrough-work „Systemisch“ (coincidentally released, as you may already have guessed, on Mille Plateaux), dates as far back as 1994, to a time when the whole notion of glitch sounded improbably and a full six years before the term „clicks & cuts“ was even coined. While the rest of the world considered Drum n Bass the sound of the future, Popp and his then-collaborators Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger would paint feltpen-patterns on CDs, re-record their skips and construct galaxies of tenderness from technical errors.

While Oval's temporary swansong „Ovalprocess“ was entirely built around bespoke applications, „Oh“ takes the exactly opposite approach. Using cheap gear, a Guitar and a Drumkit as well as generic Software and Plugins, Popp has tried everything in his power to underplay the importance of technology in order to bring his creative personality to the fore. While his early work proudly defied comparison, this 15-track EP now jacks him straight into the scene, with plenty of parallels and references offering themselves up within seconds of opening track „hey“. Just as with „Clicks & Cuts 5.0“, the original hands-on glitch-aesthetic has given way to an algorithmic one, which allows for more control and a more structured take on arrangements. All of this was of seminal importance for Popp, to whom the main motivation for returning to the limelight consisted in making „real music“ for a change. Clearly discernible chord progressions, prominent use of acoustic instruments and  traces of naive melodies all underline these intentions with a pressing urgency, resulting in a sound which is strikingly less discreet than his back catalogue.

And yet, this new incarnation of Oval has more in common with their classic phase than may be apparent at first sight. Dreamy Rhodes-elegy and quasi-title-track „oh!“, pastorally swooning „hmmm“ or the slow-motion rotation of „sediment“ hinge on the same irresistible contrast between cool, surgical source materials and defiantly romantic textures as piece like „Textuell“ (off Ovalprocess). While the latter, however, was marked by a mysterious flow, these new pieces are entirely frank about the techniques employed to create them.

Which creates an intriguing friction. On the one hand, you can hear exactly how much these pieces are actually influenced by tools and technology. On the other, the ability of Popp in sculpting something his own out of this standard set-up is all the more enticing. „Oh“ is neither made up of stuttering Folk-allusions, nor of neoclassical pastiches, neither „cute“, „charming“ or „sweet“ nor „majestic“, „monolithic“ and „massive“. A Guitar dangling over his shoulder and equipped with a remarkably unconventional approach to harmony, Popp is instead doing things his own way, walking hand in hand with his laptop and finding the perfect medium between personal expression and computer-aided composition. The fact that these mostly between one- and two-minute-short tracks were conceived as „ringtones“ must therefore not be regarded as an effort of trying to build a concept of functionality around the work, but rather as a pragmatic approach: In a byte-sized world, an artist must come up with convincing byte-sized solutions. On this, the most promising appetizer for an upcoming full-length, he certainly has.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mille Plateaux
Homepage: Thrill Jockey Records

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