Shuttle358, Understanding Wildlife
Released: December 2002
LA-based electronic artist Dan Abrams has now released four full-length works. The first two (Occur and Frame) were released under the "Shuttle358" moniker on Taylor Deupree's ultra-minimal 12k label, and the last two (Stream, under his own name, and now Understanding Wildlife) were released on Germany's ultra-hip Mille Plateaux. Normally, after an artist's fourth effort, a listener can go back and survey the earlier works and see how the artist in question has (or has not) progressed or developed from the first to the last. Comparing Abrams' earlier efforts to this one, I find it quite difficult to identify any particular stylistic or musical developments. The one difference that does stand out between this work and the others is tone. Where Frame and Stream were exercises in sadness and melancholy, Understanding Wildlife is an electronic celebration of all that is peaceful, joyful, and tranquil in life and in nature.
Abrams' music does, usually, follow a particular formula: start with a simple, minimal beat that repeats (with slight variation) over the course of a track, and add a variety of atmospheric synth sounds in particular points as needed. The title tracks of both Frame and Understanding Wildlife demonstrate this formula quite nicely. Both tracks start off with soothing synth lines and static-fused beats. In both works, the beats remain (generally) constant, with only slight variation; in both works, the synth sounds change and mutate or transform as the song goes on, giving each work its shape and its purpose.
Now, having reduced these songs to bare formulas might suggest that I don't like the works; that's far from the truth. In fact, I find both tracks (and the works to which they belong) to be exemplary, among the finest electronic music of recent years, in large part because Abrams' work is not about the individual sounds but about the resulting emotional effect that these sounds (grouped together) have on listeners. In other words, Abrams uses a particular formula because it suits him and allows him to focus on other, more important things--namely, creating emotionally resonant music out of the residue of electronic noise.
As the title suggests, the dominant emotions of Understanding Wildlife seem connected to the love of and appreciation for nature, though, in this case, nature is artificial: created by computers and other electronic devices. There are no sounds of birds or waves or wind here, just synths and minimal beats. So what makes these obviously synthesized sounds sound "natural"? There are probably a number of reasons, including the fact that, since the title mentions "wildlife" and many tracks have names that suggest nature (like "Rocks are Nice" and "Finch"), I read the theme of nature into them. But I think there's more to it than that. Abrams is a decidedly minimal artist; he can make a great track out of a few simple sounds. On Understanding Wildlife, these sounds--the synths and the beats--each possess a simplicity that suggests (for want of a better word) the simplicity of nature itself. The synth lines on various tracks, like "My Backyard" and "Rubber Clock," are slightly warm, suggesting a peaceful, lilting quality that is in stark contrast (as I've said) to Abrams' earlier, colder music. And, although the beats are very similar to the beats on other Mille Plateaux releases, Abrams keeps them simple, like the simple sounds that are often heard in nature. Together, these sounds synthesize the simplicity of the natural world while linking that simplicity to the kinds of warm, soothing emotions that are often associated with natural scenes. A good example of this is "Rocks are Nice," where the synth line lazily flows over and above the sounds of sputtering, static-filled quasi-beats (beats that aren't exactly rhythmic), creating the sound-image of a slight breeze blowing over a crackling fire (or, perhaps, a crackling flow of lava as pushes into the sea). It is a peaceful, "natural" song because the sounds themselves seem to emerge out of one another, just like nature.
Abrams first three releases were hailed as milestones in the "glitch" school of electronic music, for he managed to infuse his minimal noise with some emotions. As I've said, Understanding Wildlife is no different, except that the emotions are happier and more tranquil than earlier efforts. Frankly, since I'd rather listen to happy, peaceful music than sad, depressing music, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Understanding Wildlife is his best work to date. I look forward to his future efforts.
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