Look at this cover of Radian's second full-length, Rec.Extern. Notice the concrete roads, parking lots, and freeways, the train tracks, the trucks, the debris, and the building under construction. In electronic music, covers like this are common; the industrial wasteland is an excellent metaphor for music that is, often, created out of (or modeled after) the scraps of sound that dominate modern life. But this cover is weird. The shapes don't make sense. There seem to be too many street lanes; notice the weird, unexplained red spot; and what's with that gigantic "Y"? The confusion, the weirdness of this cover is, I think, a perfect metaphor for the music on Rec.Extern, a work of electronic music that fits neither the traditional definition of "electronic" nor the traditional definition of "music."
Unlike most electronic acts, Radian is a actual group. Martin Brandlmayr plays drums and the computer; Stefan Nemeth plays the synthesizer and the computer; and John Norman plays bass. Now, when I say "plays drums" and "plays bass," I mean real (not software-based) drums and bass. Hence, what makes Radian different from other electronic acts is the prominent role that "live" (that is, acoustic) instruments play in the creation of their music. This is music that is founded, in part, on the aesthetics of digital editing, or the idea that any sound can be transformed into any other sound through computer-based manipulation. It also owes allegiances to jazz improvisation, or the act of musicians playing in live settings, feeding ideas off one another, and always creating something new, something different, and something interesting.
The first track, "Nahfeld," epitomizes this electronic/jazz fusion. The rhythm is intermittent, jumping around about at times, absolutely silent at other times. The effect is reminiscent of traditional Japanese music, where the noise of sound and the silence of sound each possess an equal importance. However, as the song progresses, the rhythm actually seems to be attempting to transform itself into a full-blown beat, complete with hi-hats and cowbells and the whole lot. But it never gets there; there's always something (usually a burst of digital noise) that slows it down to a crawl and prevents it from going on. It's a song, in short, that never gets where it's supposed to. It's the musical equivalent of a car that won't start, no matter how many times you pump the gas pedal or turn the engine over and hear that brief, sputtering roar.
The second song on the disk, "Jet," completes this first song, though in the way you might expect. It takes "Nahfeld"'s beat and turns it loose. We hear this beat in a variety of permutations, always complete with a nice, heavy bass. But, instead of using this beat as a building block for a more complex song, the song simply recycles this beat over and over, adding in more and more distortion (usually feedback) until the entire song is drenched in noise and the beat is overwhelmed into the background.
"Jet," like "Nahfeld" before it, is an incomplete song, a song of unrealized aspirations--and that's exactly the point. Like the industrial landscape on its cover, Rec.Extern is replete with sounds we are all too familiar with. Rather than presenting us with a mundane collage of industrial waste in a nice, neat package, however, Radian places those industrial sounds into patterns and shapes that do not add up, that are confusing and alarming. The songs on this disk never give us the pleasure of a hook or a chorus or other things we normally associate with music. Rather, it challenges each and every expectation we have about music. And, despite all this, it's still a damn entertaining work, one you're likely to listen to again and again. It's one of the best albums of the year.
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