We: Square Root of Negative One

Square Root of Negative One

I'VE BEEN SKEPTICAL of the merits of the post-hip-hop ambient music called illbient ever since I wandered into one of DJ Spooky's now-fabled loft parties in 1996 and nearly gagged on the noise. Hipsters huddled in the corners and stared at the walls as if paralyzed, as some snot wearing ski goggles screamed into my ear about how this racket was ringing in "the obsolescence of dance." But as is often the case in New York City, the big egos, zany outfits, and trendy locale couldn't conceal the obvious: This was just one more lame-ass party.

The live sets of illbient artiste DJ Olive are a lot like Spooky's--heady, atonal, and almost impossible to dance to--but his work with We isn't as marred by the pomp and pretension that makes the worst of this genre so irritating. Square Root, like We's 1997 debut, As Is, is enchanting and melodic, mixing live and synthesized instrumentation with breakneck breakbeats and digital hocus-pocus. A trio made up of Olive (Gregor Asch), Once 11 (Ignacio Platas), and Lloop (Rich Panciera), We build their songs around samples and melodic loops that are alternately haunting and silly. A single piano note sustains and then stretches like a wad of chewing gum. A diva's voice trills and then morphs into a shaman's chant, and later a baby's coo. A cork bursts out of a champagne bottle, releasing effervescent hip-hop beats that go straight to your head.

Throughout Square, We harness the manic playfulness that makes U.K. gonzo junglists like Squarepusher and µ-Ziq so irresistible, and here, their multicultural smorgasbord of rhythm is truly inspiring. Mingling Native American, Asian, and African grooves with jungle, hip hop, and dub, they bend cultural preconceptions without reducing their aesthetic to the hip-hop equivalent of a Benetton ad.

Yet for all their adept deployment of exotic rhythms, We are at their best when they stick to jungle. Just as jungle tracks like "Magnesium Flares" and "3/10 of the Population" were the high points of As Is, "12 Diablos" and "El Mosquito" outshine most of the nonjungle tracks on Square Root. "Diablos" opens with what sounds like a dishroom accident and proceeds to detonate a beat so propulsive it makes most contemporary jungle seem downright sluggish. While "Mosquito" posits a marriage of downtown avant-garde and U.K. club vanguard, dropping a similarly relentless beat over squalls of melodic noise.

Square Root does have a few low points. Most of "Birimbau" sounds like the work of a Pro Tools neophyte futzing absentmindedly with a dial tone. "Ririka" spends seven minutes playing hide-and-seek with its own gloomy groove. And "12 Diablos Mix 13" is an ambient knee jerk that basically spits back the original track, sans mesmerizing percussion. In spite of these occasional missteps, however, the record showcases We's impressive attention to noise and found sound, while dissing any dunces who honestly believe dancing is obsolete.

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