Skyscraper Magazine » Oval
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Thrill Jockey
Format: 2CD / 2LP / MP3
Release Date: September 7, 2010
By Andrew Lyle Jones April 4, 2011

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

In the mid-1990s, Berlin native Markus Popp began releasing music as Oval. The albums were refreshingly conceptual with the composer employing a John Cage-like philosophy. Popp’s work counts as archetypal of the period, informed by the avant-garde and merging with the then rapidly expanding digital technology fetish. Popp even wrote his own software. At the time, listening to Oval was like hearing every noise the future could produce ringing down krautrock’s forgotten autobahns.

On the whole, though, things have moved on from the time Oval was birthed. Contemporary electronic music, especially dubstep’s predecessors, see music today as an exploration of pleasure. Folks don’t name check Stockhausen or Xenakis, instead they call on the great pop gods for ideas and inspiration. Indie and the avant-garde have found themselves in the peculiar position of being ideologically bankrupt in the face of mainstream pop music that is thought provoking and riveting. What’s funny about all of this is how much Kanye West and Oval share in common.

What was surprising about Popp’s work, and what is maybe his surviving contribution to pop music, is his sound design. Minimal but surprisingly evocative, it manages to be the ears’ equivalent to minimalism that arrived in graphic design and computers around the same period. It was simple, inviting, and yet open to fun. Popp’s aural articulations, on albums such as Wohnton (Ata Tak, 1993) and 94 diskont (Thrill Jockey, 1996), are as memorable as the typography of highway signs or the design of your iPhone, and his sound carries a similar functionalist aspect too. Kanye’s world of iPods and Louis Vuitton speakers is possible because Popp and others (Aphex Twin, Autechre, et al), as innovators of what has come to be known as glitch, created a palette of tones able to remind us of tech culture’s value.

In the present, marking out a terrain of blips, the composer’s software, which still dates to the 1990s, essentially brings the highways Model 500 cruised on, the skies Cluster flew in, and Drexeyia’s submarine villages into higher resolution. If techno created chimerical landscapes, Oval produced entire rooms with characters. Popp’s music, though, has always employed electronica for purposes far different than use on the dance floor. The mood and melodies reference kraut groups, the processes taking surprising turns, and his songs sounding like Morrocan folk music or the beginnings of Chicago techno.

Where does this leave Popp’s first album in a decade? Surprisingly, nowhere. O’s music loses the unpredictability of earlier eras’ experimentation. What is gained, though, is solidity: these are songs. Popp still references serialism and his Teutonic forebearers to good effect. Moment’s of discordance are still pleasant, his guitar samples are nice, and the album looks back to a time in which music was about maudlin thoughts and sleeping on a couch instead of updating your website. More interestingly, this is an ethnic album. O sounds like a concordance of cultures in a covert digital haze. Running through it, Oval’s music has the tempo of an African band and the taps of a Middle Eastern group. A few tracks do sound like techno in the proper sense, but Popp seems more interested in holding your attention than directing your body. Grooves are long runners, compelling, but ultimately stagnant.

As a composer Oval is now mediocre. A few of these songs are great, but over two discs (and a companion EP, Oh), the work runs flat and becomes little more than wallpaper among your phone’s bleeps, your laptop’s videos, your friend’s calls – all the functionalist sounds that used to be techno.

Visit: OVAL | Thrill Jockey
Purchase: Insound | eMusic