Various Artists, E*A*D*G*B*E

12k
Released: 2003


When I was a kid, growing up in California in the 1970s and 80s, electronic music was defined as any rock music that DIDN'T use a guitar. Electronic artists like Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, and Howard Jones were mocked as fake musicians because they used samplers and synths. In this world, there were only two musics: rock and new wave. Rock was macho, powerful, and historically relevant; new wave was pussified rock played by amateurs who just happened to be good looking enough to appeal to the MTV crowd.

Today, of course, thanks to hip hop and the continuous stream of shitty rock music over the last five years (and yes, you can rest assured that I'm talking about your favorite band), the guitar has lost some--some--of that allure, and once maligned digital instruments now figure prominently in even the most virulent rock artist's repertoire. And in this digital world, there live electronic musicians--many of whom started out their music careers playing guitar in punk or rock bands--who have decided that a return to the guitar is now in order.

Four of these musicians--Fonica, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Sebastien Roux, and Christopher Willits--make up the roster for 12k's recent compilation, E*A*D*G*B*E. The title, according to the 12k website, comes from "the root tunings of each string on a 6-string guitar." Hence, you might assume, the key instrument used in these recordings is the guitar. Ah, but that's not technically correct. This is, after all, electronic music, and in this world, the guitar is not an instrument; rather, it is mere source material. The artists play the guitar, and the sound is recorded and processed using computer software (the real instruments). The results of this digital manipulation vary from mediocre to magical, but, rest assured, none of these songs sound like "Layla."

Fonica's two tracks, "4.55" and "3.33," seem like the undeveloped beginnings of songs. These beginnings are fascinating, with elliptical twinning sounds and prickly glitter noise floating all over the place. But the songs seem like the early moments of a much longer and more interesting project, and the thirteen minutes the duo is given isn't enough to fully explore and develop their ideas.

By contrast, I'm pretty sure nine minutes is enough for Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) to express his ideas in "Lettera," but the ideas here--Cagean experiments in sound manipulation, with a single, processed guitar sound floating up and down, stopping and starting all over the place--seem more like an exercise in sound manipulation than a fully realized soundscape.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sebastien Roux's three tracks is the use of delay and echo features in his swarm of guitar granules. The way these works swirl around, sputter, and break apart suggests the ways in which sounds themselves stretch and bend and slowly dissipate in the air. These works, then, take that dissipation and focus on it, trapping those diminishing sounds like a cat trapping a bird between its paws, holding on as long as possible before the outward pressure overwhelms the inward force. This is beautiful, mesmerizing work, though sometimes I felt like that bird, stuffed between these claustrophobic sounds, waiting to escape into the dark sky.

Ah, but all this other music is just a prelude for the true center of this album, the eight tracks by Christopher Willits. Whereas the earlier works are claustrophobic, elliptical, and obtuse, Willits' work is wide open, happy, bubbling, and free. Interestingly enough, these are the only songs on this album where the guitar itself is clearly audible; that is, the digital manipulation, while still making its impact on these songs, does not completely eliminate the guitar sounds and effect. If anything, Willits manages to take the basic emotional core of this guitar sound and blend it seamlessly with subtle, haunting digital effects.

Willits' tracks (save the last one, "Champagne and Soda," which seems more like Roux's music than Willits' own) demonstrate that the laptop culture of electronic musicians is merely a new chapter in the long history of the wandering musician, a history founded on two things: mobility and freedom. The guitar was elemental to the wandering musicians because it could create more different types of sound than just about any other acoustic instrument save the piano; plus, unlike a piano, it could be carried on one's back. The laptop expands this mobility and freedom by exponentially adding to the wealth of sounds and adding an infinite variety of ways to manipulate those sounds. Willits' music here (and, for all I know, Willits himself) celebrates both the history and the future of music--not by denigrating or masking the guitar but by altering its sound and recreating it, freedom and mobility intact.

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