self released 2013, DD album, 40m 26s
Historically, the music released under the Dementio 13 aegis has been sufficiently consistent to sound like the work of a single project, but it has also developed and evolved in quite striking ways. The earlier work had a more signally electronic sound, and although it involved some remarkable explorations of texture, was notable more for the way that it manipulated relatively simple melodic and harmonic materials to create a very human, outward-looking creative landscape. It did this from a set of premises that might reasonably be expected to yield a more claustrophobic atmosphere, and to focus on artifice and energy rather than on the broad sweep of emotional life that it made its subject. Although he is clearly well-versed in the forms and styles for which electronic music has become famous since it came crashing into the mainstream, the influence of earlier, more esoteric work, such as Krautrock, and academic experimental music, is obvious in the range of sounds and approaches Dementio 13 brings to his releases. In short his music is very literate, but it is also very accessible; he has referred to it as ‘electronic post-rock’, which does a good job of suggesting its emphasis on cinematic expanses of sound rather than crunching beats or intricate melodic statements, although it isn’t really rock, and it inhabits a liminal stylistic territory at the fringes of a whole range of established practices. The music is idiomatically coherent, and is neither strange nor transgressive in its impact, but it is quite clearly unique. Dementio 13 does not rest on his artistic laurels, and has continued to develop his sound with each new release, continually investigating the ways in which a small project studio packed with electronic gizmos can be persuaded to represent the sound of the world, or at least the sound of a human heart in the teeth of the cosmos. As the albums have gone by (and this is quite a prolific artist we’re discussing) more gritty, electro-acoustic sounds have entered the fray, and the beats have come to more frequently resemble something that might be produced by a human rhythm section, although Dementio 13 has never attempted to conceal or elide his music’s digital genesis. Natural textures do not resemble the purities of synthesised tones, which is why distortions are popular aspects of timbre; there are piano and string sounds in Imperial Decimal, whether synthetic, multi-sampled or recorded afresh I couldn’t say (I favour the second possibility), and there are also various distortions. All of this serves to dress the bare bones of the arrangements with the kind of stochastic character that signals the susceptibility of sound to its environment, although in all probability none of the sounds heard on this record has actually moved any air since before Dementio 13 got hold of them.
Imperial Decimal’s first notes reach us from a distance, a simple piano figure garnished with a filigree of almost imperceptible syncopations, and filtered through a wash of static that clearly signifies the fog of memory. Then a synthetic voice counts down, ‘3… 2… 1…’, and we burst through into the clarity of the present. ‘Application Of Number’ is the title of this brief composition, and number is a recurring theme throughout the album, as is the sterile formality of the context from which the phrase ‘application of number’ will be familiar to anyone employed in education, in the UK at least. This music is too creatively rigorous to fall into the nostalgia trap, and it avoids the glib bittersweet reflex of the hypnagogic tendency in contemporary art-pop, but it is fully engaged with history, and with the future, both as contexts and as ideas. Synthesised, sequenced sounds have unavoidable connotations of futurity, which Dementio 13 embraces, his synthetic voices offering a retro-futurist aesthetic which is often tinged with regret, as in the sad, slow melody against which more numbers are recited in ‘Nought Point Seven’. The bright future we imagined we might have has been lost, he seems to be implying, and that is indeed a widespread form of disillusion among the many socially progressive individuals condemned to work in the various moribund arms of state bureaucracy. I don’t like to read too much into the biography of artists, but Dementio 13’s secret identity is a schoolteacher, and it’s hard to avoid speculating that this album is, in some ways, inspired by the experiences of his working life. The album is neither morose nor angry, and it has no obvious social or political agenda, being largely devoid of lyrical content, but the affective landscape it describes, in addition to its engagement with the connotations of particular sounds, makes the idea seem credible that it is in some sense a critique.
This is an altogether more reflective album than its predecessor, Last Test; beats and grooves are relatively scarce, and inclined toward less of a dancefloor sound. ‘Known In Hell’ is driven by a powerful but sedate post-punk groove, and tunes that do (in whole or in part) resemble dance music, such as ‘Filed Away’, ‘Jester’ or ‘The Data People’, resemble the re-purposed organic grooves of big-beat or boom-bap more than the mechanistic imperatives of techno. Many tunes, such as ‘Nobutaku’, ‘Know Your Place’, ‘The Mains’ or ‘Taupe’ articulate their rhythmic content virtually without recourse to percussive elements, let alone to the rhetorical sequences thereof that we hear as beats. This is not to say that they are without incident; musical ideas abound, and none is exploited for long enough to exhaust its novelty, the tunes grasping and keeping the attention with the deft assurance of the experienced arranger. Certain sounds mimic, or are directly recorded from, an acoustic or electro-acoustic source, such as the recurring piano sounds, and the guitars in ‘Filed Away’, but the majority of the individual timbres from which the music on Imperial Decimal is constructed are of a clearly electronic or digital origin; working in the grey area between production and arrangement, Dementio 13 pulls off the difficult trick of mimicking that pervasive, low-level chaos that results from a group of musicians shifting air in a common space, both in the subtle unpredictability of the musical articulations and the acoustic artifacts of the sounds’ co-existence. In fact, the sound is considerably more ‘live’ than many studio recordings of human musicians, which can be so precise, and so clearly separated in production, that they resemble no plausible performance context, situating the listener in an impossible space where each sound source reaches the ears as though through a soundproofed channel, their relative positioning ignoring the logistics of scale and geometry. This is the sound of one man in his sonic laboratory, but it resembles the uncontrolled, impulsive and social sound of music made by more traditional methods.
‘Our Policy On Swearing’, with which the album concludes, presents the only extended verbal exposition to be heard on Imperial Decimal (other than the long sample on ‘Known In Hell’, but I couldn’t decipher more than the occasional phrase of that); it is clearly intended to highlight the arbitrary absurdities of bureaucratic regulations, setting out a hierarchy of offense, and guidelines for the use of particular taboo words. It’s also quite funny (‘fuck is a word that causes much consternation’), and I think that’s important, because although much of this music is relatively melancholy, the sensibility that informs it seems rich with irony, an irony that is inevitably submerged in a practice that predominantly eschews the use of denotational verbal materials. This is a music of feeling and atmosphere, a heart-and-soul machine music, that sounds considerably more human than many ostensibly less mechanical musical statements; but it is also intelligent and critical, and these aspects are far more deeply imbedded in the sound than is the case with many of the more intellectually orientated approaches to pop and rock, where clever lyrics are tacked onto music which might happily carry a range of other meanings. This record is a sophisticated compositional and creative achievement, which represents human experience in the round, as something both atavistic and enculturated, both emotional and intellectual, both raw and cooked. Dementio 13 does all this without demanding anything more than close, attentive listening, exploiting a well established, widely shared musical vocabulary to communicate as effectively as any musical work I can recall hearing. Imperial Decimal is very clever, but it is also accessible, enjoyable, and frequently beautiful.