By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
For a guy whose popularity registers largely on Internet mailing lists and bulletin boards, orchestral trip-hop composer µ-Ziq (pronounced "myu-ZIQUE") shows surprisingly little love for newsgroups.
"It's all a joke," spits the 28-year-old, born Mike Paradinas, over the phone from his home in Worcester, England. "All the message boards are for is for people to advertise their MP3s or say, 'I found this really good CD,' and have everybody else slag 'em off afterward for two weeks--'Fuck you, it's crap.'"
The international techno star's deadpan is exactly what you'd expect from a prominent composer of bone-dry "IDM" (technoid shorthand for "intelligent dance music"). The subgenre generally caters to listeners who'd rather work a rebus than give up the funk--to an audience, in other words, that might know or care that the Greek letter in µ-Ziq's title is the scientific symbol for billionth of a meter.
Yet even at his most cerebral, Paradinas flirts with a melodic opulence that might spell pop in the hands of someone with any actual interest in a mass audience. Translate the title of his spastic first album, 1993's Tango 'N' Vectif, into phonetic plainspeak and you get what might be a heading for a diatribe against dancing. But unlike the decidedly undanceable geektronica of, say, Squarepusher or Autechre--whose shared goal seems to involve alienating anyone not in on the sonic joke--Paradinas's best work feels as open-hearted as it is open-minded (and open-ended). If his music resembles anything, it's the unzagged zigs of his early acid-jungle mentor Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James, who released Tango 'N' Vectif on his Rephlex label. (Paradinas and James also collaborated on 1998's humorous Expert Knob Twiddlers, credited to the duo Mike & Rich.)
Like many of his armchair techno brethren, Paradinas began his career as a six-year-old student of classical piano. Raised in Wimbledon, he was already performing in synth-pop combos by his preteen years, and kept busy in bands through the early Nineties--when British pop shifted its shoe-gaze to the rave tent. Paradinas had enrolled in architecture school and was experimenting with electro-flavored synthesizer instrumentals when he signed with Rephlex. His remarkable second album, 1995's In Pine Effect (his first for his own label, Planet µ) took a few steps toward a more accessible, more eclectic style--though always with a twist. The kickoff, "Roy Castle," balanced a clarion riff atop cool synthesized woodwinds and hip-hopping drums, while "Mr. Angry" overlaid distorted beats with a frightening repeated (baby? animal?) scream. "Within a Sound" shattered swirling computer-space atmospherics with trash-can-battering breaks. Ambient this wasn't.
With 1997's Lunatic Harness, Paradinas further explored his knack for combining ethereal melody--especially on the hovering "Hasty Boom Alert"--with the digital-music equivalent of Jackson Pollock spattering. His puzzles began to sound like a distinctly warped take on the strenuously programmed drums and blotchy, overdriven bass of techstep jungle. But the seed of µ-Ziq's latest album was planted when Paradinas toured with Björk following Lunatic's release.
"I was listening to her string section a lot--and built a lot of stuff around strings," he says. Paradinas had also worked up more traditional (for him) percussion-based tracks for Royal Astronomy, which was released last July, but those songs were nixed at the insistence of American distributor Astralwerks.
"My label didn't want any fast drums or anything that would turn people off," Paradinas says. "A lot of the tracks I'd done wasn't stuff they wanted to release. And the string-based stuff was. They wanted something that was a little out of the ordinary--they literally said, 'Take it to the next level, Mike.'"
Though "the next level" has been thoroughly bled of meaning in dance phraseology, it's not exactly far off the mark when you consider how Astronomy synthesizes its creator's disparate interests into something far more cohesive. Certainly, it's his most listener-friendly opus under any alias (in addition to µ-Ziq, Paradinas has assumed Jake Slazenger, Tusken Raiders, Gary Moscheles, and Kid Spatula.)
Though Paradinas has no idea what the word "baroque" means when I bring it up during our interview, Royal Astronomy has more than the usual share of "artistic expression...marked by use of complex forms, bold ornamentation, and the juxtaposition of contrasting elements often conveying a sense of drama, movement, and tension" (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1993). In fact, the gorgeous string-quartet number "Scaling" makes a surprisingly deft bid for classical-music respectability.
Not that the album wants for beats. "The Motorbike Track" is a relatively straightforward drum 'n' bass huzzah with a funky acid riff and a sped-up interpolation of the old breakbeat from Lyn Collins's "Think"--a song immortalized on Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two" and a staple of early jungle. The track comes with what could be interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek critique of both µ-Ziq and his cohorts' reckless experiments with undiluted dance forms: a black male voice loudly complaining, "Knock that shit off, for real."
There's even a couple of songs featuring nonsampled--gasp!--vocals, by a woman named Kazumi, which fit right into the groove without sounding like hasty pop compromises (see DJ Rap) or showcases for some misbegotten chanteuse's tenth-grade poetry (see Krust's Coded Language). But don't think Paradinas is gonna rock MTV party blocks anytime soon. The live presentation of his sumptuous material is almost ascetic: A minimal video and light show is the only visual ornamentation for a typical µ-Ziq concert. As Paradinas states flatly, "I play a sampler; that's what the music's made on." (Or as he bluntly told Web zine Perfect Sound Forever, "It's not going to be me dancing and entertaining unless you want me to do a striptease or something. It's not a rock band and we're not performers.")