Roland Bühlmann – Aineo (progressive rock)

self released 2014, DD & CD album, 51m 54s

SFr10+ DD SFr20+ CD

AineoThere is a minimal aesthetic to Aineo, but its compositions are structured hierarchically, not by any remotely Minimalist procedure. It’s an instrumental record, with cool, low-key textures, that, for the most part, can be uncontroversially classified as rock – a few folky moments notwithstanding. Everything about it conforms to established norms that say, roughly, each element in a texture will be active and melodically significant in direct proportion to its pitch. The music is not unremittingly monodic, and its textures are frequently more prominent than melodies that, if present, are sometimes no more than coincidences at the top of the voicings, but it is predominantly homophonic, designed to direct the listener to grasp it as a unitary utterance, an organic whole. No single voice is rocking this boat. This is in contrast to much of the music that I review, which frequently calls into question, tacitly or explicitly, the conventional assumptions that inform the composition, performance and recording of music, serious or popular. Roland Bühlmann writes harmonies that are relatively static, exploring successive modalities at his leisure, but they are still assembled in a coherently tonal manner, persuading the listener rhetorically of the inevitability of their affective narratives. Why then, you may be wondering, am I writing about this record, since my tastes seem usually to run towards the bat-shit crazy? For one thing, I’ve never argued that just because an artistic orthodoxy is not rooted in necessity, it is therefore not a valid basis for creativity. I don’t believe, by any means, that the possibilities of unequivocally tonal music have been exhausted, or that the emergence of new methods invalidates old ones. There’s still a place for figurative art in a world dominated by abstraction and conceptualism; there’s still a place for Realist novels in the face of post-modernity; there’s still a place for hard blowing post-bop after the disruptive interventions of the free improvisation movement, and I still like roast beef and spuds in spite of my taste for tempura-battered courgette flowers seasoned with lemongrass, served with a slice of haggis and a dollop of guacamole (or was that mushy peas?) Bühlmann has applied himself with thoroughness and imagination to the task of composing and arranging his music: he has done so in a way that makes the old critical questions about the relationship between ‘deep structure’ and ‘musical surface’ interesting ones, as much because as in spite of their mutual contingency and metaphorical character.

Not that I’m about to attempt a detailed analysis of this music, or pretend to answer those questions – but my description of its sounds will be informed by the understanding that structures which exist only in the minds of musicians, such as chords, keys and meters, have clearly been employed here in a relatively uncritical way. This is an entirely instrumental album, and it’s not without it’s moments of instrumental display, but it is unlike most mainstream instrumental rock in that it is neither a testosterone fuelled chops-fest nor a battering ram assault on the ears. It is an orderly assemblage, which values clarity, both in terms of its clean, spacious and comprehensible production, and of the clearly expressed, tidily delineated musical ideas from which it is constructed. Drums provide rhythmic scaffolding; bass connects that to the bottom of the harmony; chords outline that harmony; and melodies explore some of its tonal affordances. It’s not always about the melodies though, as I intimated above: in ‘Ham’nagen’ the arrangement is built up initially from repetitions of short phrases, in a way that sounds compositionally closer to the practices of the dance music producer than the writer of rock tunes. It could be constructed from a kit of loops, although clearly Bühlmann is playing it all (bar the drums, which are indeed programmed throughout the album). A steady eighth-note pulse is the rule, as is a saturated, long-sustaining lead guitar sound, which while heavily distorted, has been tamed with compression until its grit is more akin to the huskiness of a violin bow catching and releasing the strings as it drags across them. This lead guitar voice seems to be the author’s avatar in the music: although he has built the whole edifice, when the lead voice is elaborating a melody, it feels like he is addressing his audience directly. With the notable exception of the moderately heavy opening track, the middles of the textures are mainly filled by clean acoustic or electric guitar chords, or synthesiser pads: there are few completely unprocessed sounds, and Bühlmann has invested a great deal of effort in sculpting delays, atmospheric reverbs and choruses, and sometimes something a little more warped, although the resulting soundworld is always a pretty, luminous place, with nothing unsettling about it.

Aineo is a place in which, in contrast to many people’s experience of the world, meaning is readily to be found. There is a unifying thread to each composition, a sense of integration and understanding, which offers the listener ready access to the music’s comforts and pleasures, and it is a common thread that connects each tune together, unifying the album. Much of the music to which I’m drawn represents the contingency, uncertainty and even the pain of the world, but there is also a place for music which provides solace in the face of life’s vicissitudes. For all the real pleasure I take in uncertainty and difference, the search for commonality and understanding is a fundamental counterpart to that, something which is probably essential to any human being’s sense of self: what’s unusual about this music is not that it addresses that need, but that it does so through the stylistic vehicle of rock music! Orderly late-Baroque or early-Classical string quartets, or the glimmering electronic soundscapes of ambient music, are the places I tend to go when I want that confirmational feeling… For me, the cognitive counterpart to that feeling is my understanding of human compassion, and of the vast beauty of the physical universe. For Bühlmann it is clearly God, and the Christian God at that. ‘Aineo’ is a Biblical Greek verb meaning, roughly, to sing praises to God. There is a quotation inside the digipack gatefold from 2 Kings 3:15, from which he takes the Hebrew word ‘ham’nagen’, title of the second track: ‘while the musician played the hand of the Lord came upon him’. This is crucial to an understanding of the record: while there is certainly much of Bühlmann in this music, and I’m sure he sees it as an outpouring of his own heart and soul, this sense that his creation is divinely inspired can be restated more broadly as an appeal to something larger than the ego of the individual musician. He plays a part in this music, but he is a channel for the meanings and affective states it engenders, not their ontological originator: he is a custodian of these musical materials, which he has received (unless you want to be extremely essentialist about style) from the whole broad river of human culture, and passes on to the listener in the hopes that they will help them to feel the same connection that he does. The orderly construction of the music is a token of the order which Bühlmann presumably perceives in God’s creation: that I don’t share his Christian faith does not make these meanings irrelevant to me, or the music’s powerful sense of connectedness unappealing. Quite the opposite in fact: whether it is Handel’s Messiah, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, I have found religious music to be among the most profoundly moving sounds I have heard. We are all separated by cultural and social distinctions, living in a contingent and uncertain universe to which we are profoundly irrelevant; but we are also all connected, and our lives can have meaning, whether or not we see its source as divine. Sometimes we need music that focuses on the connections, and Aineo is a particularly beautiful example.

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