Sonic Boom

Last March a coup was staged at New York's CBGB. Quietly, quickly, with a minimum of fuss and just about zero publicity, a serious-looking man stepped onstage to plug his tiny white laptop into the PA system. The Strokes lookalikes in the audience must have been confused--was he, like, an accountant or something? But any befuddlement quickly gave way to panic once a brief squeak of feedback erupted into a 30-minute onslaught of distorted basslines and heavily processed squalls of noise. And just when the racket was reaching deafening decibels, the audio crashed to a halt. The man packed up his computer and exited the stage.

Had the indie crowd known anything about Peter Rehberg, the impresario before them, perhaps the sudden, piercing yawp wouldn't have seemed so surprising. As a self-proclaimed "noisician" who once pronounced in a manifesto that "the sound between the radio stations [is] always going to be more interesting than the radio stations themselves," Rehberg is responsible for some of the most thrilling experimental electronic music of the past ten years. He first jolted audiences with the relatively subdued sonic violence of 1996's debut, Seven Tons for Free and the stunning shock-tactic outburst of 2000's Get Out. Now his recent flurry of releases on the Mego label offers fans a chance to evaluate whether his aesthetic is still as far ahead of the curve as it was four years ago.

Composing the sound of falling down stairs: Peter Rehberg
Mego
Composing the sound of falling down stairs: Peter Rehberg

On Rehberg's newest solo outing, Get Down (released under his solo moniker Pita), he distances himself from the Sturm und Drang brutality of his previous work in favor of a (relatively) calm elaboration on sonic textures. The title and vinyl-only format of the album hint that Rehberg is now directly engaging with the dance-floor techno strains that have previously related to his work only tangentially. Yet the music offers a gloriously apocalyptic reworking of the four-to-the-floor body music, succeeding most noticeably when he molests electronic music's most fundamental elements: "Acid Udon," for example, is a riotous, dyspeptic reworking of an analog-squiggled bassline that continually cuts and erupts into splinters of noise. Surprisingly, Rehberg is less convincing when he delves into pure abstraction. He sometimes relies too heavily upon a scatter-and-paste methodology, as on "43353.rf," which dissects the perpetual motion of techno rhythms without ever really going anywhere itself.

Rehberg's slice-and-dice procedure also dominates much of the highly awaited new Fenn O'Berg release, The Return of Fenn O'Berg, which features Rehberg duking it out in a live laptop battle with Christian Fennesz (widely touted for his gorgeous album Endless Summer) and experimental collaborator du jour Jim O'Rourke. O'Rourke once described the group's 1999 debut The Magic Sound of Fenn O'Berg as "the sound of falling down the stairs," which just about summed up the enjoyably delirious energy of their improv shenanigans. But on the new CD, O'Rourke's description feels perhaps too apt. Whole samples briefly surface before being chopped up and sent back, convulsing, to the sonic perimeters, while beeps and buzzes ring about in the ether.

Space is sometimes a good thing, and it's a joy when the shards cohere into something solid--as in the opening of "A Viennese Tragedy," in which a thousand slivers of sound give way joyously to a simple repeated squelch. Likewise, the group is magnificent when it hits upon a choice sample, usually culled from the uncool back annals of music history (part of one track sounds almost like Enya, swear to God), and then squiggles its pixelated mayhem around on top. By the end of the album, Fenn O'Berg make up for any missteps with "We Will Diffuse You." This glorious closer is a perfectly paced hop-skip-and-a-jump through splatterpunk noise and hushed, analog romanticism that's remarkably beautiful, maybe even moving.

Perhaps more accessible than either the Fenn O'Berg or Pita release is Showroom Dummies--which, despite being credited to DACM, is a Rehberg solo work. The CD is the audio accompaniment to a performance by the avant-garde dance troupe DACM, who commissioned a soundtrack that explores themes of motion, repulsion, and, according to the press release, the "possibility [of] sliding from submission into passive resistance."

Rehberg's work on this album strays from his traditional forays into diseased audio data, delving into restrained minimalism, and setting electro-acoustic fragments (mostly sine-wave beeps and scuffed-up fuzzing) into quiet, considered motion. Rehberg makes painterly use of silence and echoes, allowing each sonic particle a kind of slow rotation through ambient space. No particular song stands out from the others, and indeed, the tracks themselves remain untitled: The emphasis here is on ebb and flow. Rehberg pulls sparse sonic elements together with an attention to rhythm that makes Showroom Dummies a profoundly enjoyable recording.

The album proves that his musical aesthetics are wandering all over the place at the moment--which, of course, is especially exciting for an anti-musician who is as intent on bewildering his audience as he is on battering their eardrums. Still, you wonder: What would Showroom Dummies have sounded like alongside a bit of dancing? Maybe we'll have to wait for the DVD in order to find out the answer.

 
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