ISAN, Lucky Cat
Released: May 2001
Lucky Cat is the third release by ISAN (Antony Ryan and Robin Saville), a duo whose previous releases--Beautronics, Salamander,
and a host of EPs and remixes--helped establish the "little" IDM (or
"idm") sound so prominent in electronic music today. Although called a
duo, the two are, in many ways, anything but. ISAN's web site (www.isan.co.uk)
describes their relationship like this: "Composing and producing alone,
in geographically disparate studios - communicating by mail, phone and
internet - the two individuals produce similar enough music to fly
under the same flag. The challenge to the listener is to distinguish
the work of one member from that of the other."
I don't actually know what "ISAN" stands for, but I do have a guess. I think it's a play on ISDN, a term which is both the acronym for a digital networking system and the title of a Future Sounds of London "live" disk made in the early 90s. Perhaps the "A" in ISAN stands for analog, rather than digital. This would make sense, since so much of ISAN's sound is a rejection of the digital noise and heavy beat and sample culture that is electronic music and a celebration of the "warmth" of old synths, good melodies, and analog mistakes.
I've always seen ISAN as makers of "little songs," songs that range from two to four minutes. While there are plenty of little songs on Lucky Cat, the majority of songs are in the five to seven minute range. While this isn't important by itself, the slightly longer song length hints at a broader development in ISAN's sound. What I think ISAN have done on this release is move away from the quick and tidy songs of Beautronics and Salamander--which emphasized cute, clever rhythms and synth lines--and move toward atmospheric meditations that use rhythm sparingly and are centered around the interplay between disparate melodic lines. This is not a major change, but it does result in a disk that is more complex and more interesting than previous efforts.
The churning synth lines that sputter through the opening track, "Cutlery Favors," give a brief hint at this new direction. A better example is the next track, the wonderfully titled "Table of Deciduous Species," which creates a rich fabric out of the interplay between a bass line, binary flute synth melodies, and a monotone rhythm. Again, as in all ISAN music, the ideas here are utterly simple, but the performances, the ways each sound plays along with and plays against every other sound, are hypnotic, beautiful, and fascinating.
That's just the beginning. In the songs that follow, that emphasis on atmospherics and melody come through even clearer. "Recently in the Sahara" opens with a warm, blippy synth line, which is joined by a rumbling bass line, a high-pitched electronic whine, and a few other sounds, each in a different register (some high, some low, some in the middle). The sounds repeat over and over through the course of the song--each individual sound added, one by one, to the "soup," so that, by the end, there are about 10 different lines moving at once. Cacophony? Not really. Not only is each sound in a different register, but each sound also retains a semblance of the initial "blippy" melody. So this is a noisy song, but an ISAN noise, founded on the simple idea of repeating the same melody over and over using different sounds.
"Anteaters Eat Ants" takes a different track: the fingersnap clicking sound on Salamander's "Clipper" is here made into a distorted telephone rhythm, which is surrounded by and enveloped in a warm synth melody and the occasional digital click. Again, it's a simple song, but the rhythm focus here marks a sharp contrast from the equally simple but discordant "Sahara" and complex but mellower "Kittenplan A," which begins and ends slowly with a nice, warm bass line, but uses a buzzing bee sound, an actual snare drum rhythm, some digital glitches, and a few high-pitched wails to add some unusual movement to the middle of the song. As the disk progresses, in songs like "Read Again," "Catheart," and "Scraph," more use is made of traditional rhythm structures, though even here these rhythms serve the melodic focus of the tracks.
A lot of people don't enjoy ISAN's music. They find it boring, stale, or even predictable. I'm not one of those people, obviously, but even if you are one of those people, I would recommend Lucky Cat to you. There is a consistency here--a unity between songs--that is not fully evident on previous works. As well, the focus on ambient sounds interspersed between unusual rhythms and wrapped up in interesting songs is an intoxicating combination. The bottom line is simple: this is a disk of immense depth and emotion, well worth checking out.
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