Altin Village & Mine AVM 049, 2013, DD CD & LP album, 42m 58s
£5.99 DD €10 CD/LP
Simon Reynolds wrote an interesting book about the recycling of culture, particularly mass- and popular culture, particularly music (it’s called Retromania if you want to read it). His central point, that culture is revived and recycled on an every decreasing cycle until it reaches the point at which no new language is possible, a sort of stylistic event horizon, is a valid one. However, underlying this observation is the important understanding that all language, of any kind, has always been concerned with other language; Pttrns make extensive use of established practices and motifs in Body Pressure, but so has every artist in every field. The moments of apparent rupture come in work that is fortunate enough to crest a technological or social wave, such as the first flowerings of psychedelia or hip-hop, or in work whose authors produce forbidden conjunctions of existing material, rendering their utterances inaudible to the cultural hierarchy, and to most potential listeners. To produce a sound that is both accessible and creatively interesting requires a willing engagement with the kinds of musical dialect that are readily understood by the lay-listener; Pttrns dig into the relatively recent past for their materials, presumably because that distance grants some novelty, and also presumably for the associations that they bring with them. This is not the sort of unthinking and careless recycling that has brought our mass culture to its present impasse however (and I’m inclined to believe that musical mass culture has genuinely run out of options); Body Pressure is a self-aware assemblage of intelligently curated materials, a paean to the era on which it draws (that of the New Romantics and 80s electro), but equally a deliberate selection from today’s palette, which thanks to the omni-archival internet includes the entirety of recorded musical history.
For the most part the components of this album are very close to those of the early to mid 80s electronic pop bands: synthesizers and drum machines sit happily alongside electric guitar and bass, while the arrangements employ a similar fusion of rock and stiff, white-boy funk motifs. The sound is far from formulaic however; the electronic elements are creatively sculpted, and the arrangements are varied. Opening track ‘Healing’ combines a classic trebly slap-bass figure with a club-ready four on the floor kick and disco era percussive ornaments; ‘Dice’ has very eighties vocals, but distinct traces of Afro-pop; ‘Unresolved’ rides a mutating bass hook through territories redolent of reggae and raï. The production has the full range depth of a well mastered modern recording: much as it sounds like the eighties, the eighties never sounded quite this good. Its snares were harsh, its FM synthesis was crude sounding in comparison, and its mixes were rarely as well integrated as Body Pressure. These things are part of the era’s sonic charm of course, but we forgive them as listeners because we know and love the songs so well; Pttrns made a sound choice in presenting a well-polished product, although it is far from ‘over-produced’, and retains enough dynamic range to sound alive.
Much of the album is straightforward dance music, a direct and deliberate appeal to the listening body, and it uses the technical tools of later decades’ dance music production to precisely nail the machine-erotic spectacle of the 80s. That slickly dystopian aesthetic is also clear in the alienated melancholy of the vocal delivery; these hollow, empty vowels speak a defiant hedonism to the depersonalising power of a surface-obsessed society, as well as a certain nostalgia for an era in which that superficiality was so naively transparent. For Pttrns there is an ironic distance, a historical and social awareness that puts them in the driving seat, as artists, carefully exploiting the many layers of meaning attached to the era by its subsequent uses and influence; for the first generation of musicians to sing and groove in this mechanistic style, their sadness and anomie rang out more clearly the more they denied it. The 80s was a decade like the 20s, when those that had the wherewithal partied hard, because without a constant stream of overpriced wine, cocaine, dancing and fucking there was no ignoring the world outside, which was pretty grim. Of course it’s no less grim now, but the corporate hierarchy that runs it is much better at providing the masses with carefully modulated opiates in the second decade of the twenty-first century. So Body Pressure is party music: it has strong, propulsive grooves, and good, entertaining songs; but it is also a self-aware attempt to build a community of feeling against a cold and uncaring world, and at the same time a critical acknowledgement of that gelidity and indifference.
Pttrns describe themselves as ‘equal parts colors, shapes and instants’. Not as subjects, or as expressive agents; not as depth, but as surface. We are meant to take them as sensational phenomena, as occurrences and impressions; the meanings of the music, they seem to imply, should be read directly from the play of light and shadow on its surface, rather than by interrogating it for its deeper significance. This is music addressed directly to a post-structuralist critical context, which is a little ironic for work so rich in subtext. Of course it is unlikely that Pttrns theorise their own work in precisely these terms, and of course they are subjective creative agents, but as such they have made specific decisions; they have chosen to locate their practice in a readymade stylistic language, and they have chosen to remain essentially anonymous, to present themselves as signifiers, as shapes and colours, not as signifieds. Few musical utterances speak the subject as concretely and as erotically as singing, but the particular form of the vocal delivery on Body Pressure serves to undermine its specificity: because it evokes so clearly the sound of a specific era, and because those stylistic tropes encode an emotional distance and disconnection, the voice seems to belong to a body of practice as much as it does to an individual, for all that the performances are impassioned and committed. The same observation could be made of the album as a whole; it’s a sincere and heartfelt piece of work, which effaces the traces of its own creators. Equal parts pitches, rhythms and instants.