September 19, 2009

Microstoria - Snd (1996, Mille Plateaux/Thrill Jockey)

I spent my junior year of college as an exchange student in central Japan in '00-'01, and took every opportunity to explore the endless winding streets of Kyoto and Osaka. Looking back now, I marvel at the number of concerts I was able to attend, considering the full-time load of classes and Japanese homework I had to deal with every week, and I feel good that I made the most of my limited time there (well, maybe I bought too much manga). One of my favorite places to see shows was the Kyoto Club Metro, a weird little space half-way down a flight of stairs at one of the Kyoto subway stations, which apparently used to be a conductors' bar and hang-out area. There were shows at the space pretty much every single night, as I recall, with lots of punk, ska and weird '60s-'80s pop mash-up DJs. They also hosted a bunch of amazing IDM and experimental nights, including a Rephlex night with Cylob and Freeform, and a deafening night of non-idiomatic improv and turntable destruction from Christian Marclay and Lee Renaldo, followed by Boredoms' DJ EYE. I also went to see Mouse On Mars on their "Idiology" tour there, and was very impressed by the opening laptop set by Jan St. Werner and Markus Popp as Microstoria. I had previously heard Popp's Oval project, when he made a big buzz in the electronic music community with the albums "Systemisch" and "Dok", released domestically on Thrill Jockey, but I had found the material I heard to be too sonicly harsh for my taste, with a focus on gritty CD-skipping digital rhythms. I recognize now that Popp's "Ovalprocess" was pretty revolutionary for its time (early-mid '90s) and predated much of the laptop scene of the next ten years. Teamed up with Werner, also a member of Mouse On Mars, the abrassive side of Oval was tempered into a soft-spoken glitch ambience with a futuristic edge of digital ice. When I returned to the US, I found Microstoria's "Snd" CD and recognized similar textures to what I'd heard live, if even more subdued. Considering the time frame of this album, the experimental DSP processing and granular synthesis effects put to use must have been produced with relatively cutting-edge technology/software, predating the release of the genre-defining Max/MSP Macintosh software. The "Snd" album has a calm ambient atmosphere, with occasionally jittery computer manipulation that creates a psychedelic vibe. Organic sounds of bells, reed instruments and field recordings are occasionally perceptable, but the tracks generally explore abstract, if constantly shifting, territory. Listening to it 13 years later, the CD still sounds impressively futuristic and forward-thinking. The album also led to a follow-up remix collection called "Reprovisors", which featured many big-names in the avant-garde/laptop scene of the time, including Jim O'Rourke, F.X. Randomiz, Stereolab, and Christoph Heemann, bringing the group wider attention from the post-rock/experimental crowds.