Deru: Trying To Remember

Ilkae: Bovine Rearrangement

Machine Drum: Bidnezz

As Merck's late-'04 release schedule includes near-coincident discs from Ilkae, Deru, and Machine Drum, it affords a prime opportunity to check in with the label and get updated on its current state of well-being. These latest missives show the label in fine form and hitting a nice stride, and if anything increasingly difficult to pigeonhole. Far from being a Schematic or Warp clone, the label's forging its own sound, bolstered by a huge roster of artists—all of whom seem to be contributors to Ilkae's latest outing Bovine Rearrangement, a massive remix project from Krystian Lubiszewski and Aaron Munson who asked each artist to remake one of the forty-five (!) tracks from their Ilkae debut Pistachio Island. Given the nature of the project, it's hard to form a reliable impression of the group's sound when its music gets refracted in twenty different ways, though a general strain of arcade-flavoured hip-hop gradually emerges; imagine the midpoint between the sweet melodic richness of Morr Music and Merck's rougher-edged beatmaking and you're flying in the right direction. There's an irrepressibly joyous heart beating at Ilkae's centre which refreshes, given its relative rarity in the often dour electronic field, though the album's second half does shift the mood into more experimental and ambient zones. Contributors include Merck regulars like Machine Drum and Helios but friends like Isan appear too, enriching the album with broad stylistic variety.

Among the numerous highlights, Secede opens the set with a robust starburst overture that soars and glistens, while Kettel adds sunkissed steel drums to infectious shimmying grooves. Daedelus merges Autechrian clanks and whirrs with sweeping string samples, in contrast to Isan's paradisiacal oasis of glistening insect flutter. In the second half, Proem's laconic funk throbs and lashes, while Proswell conjures a elegiac idyll of gaseous vapours and piercing symphonic tones. Shex, Carrier Two, o9, Tim Koch, Setzer, Octopus Inc., Joseph Nothing, Lackluster, and MD round out the cast. Not all the pieces work so well—Vim's is undone by excessively frenetic channel-hopping, making its beats confusedly stumble over themselves—but such lapses are rare. By album's end, your impression of Ilkae's sound may still be unfocused but you'll be more than satisfied by the embarrassment of riches.

Compared to Ilkae, Deru (Ben Wynn) adopts a structurally more conventional approach on Trying To Remember, his Merck successor to 2003's Pushing Air (Neo Ouija). There's little that's conventional about Deru's hallucinatory, portentous sound, however, which emphasizes dense textures and downtempo hip-hop beats that curdle and scrape. Wynn's pieces float dreamily with phantom whispers, muffled bell tones, and soft electric piano burble piercing through dense strata of crackle and industrial noise. Representative of the album's spectral sound, “Words You Said” weaves haunting piano figures into a viscous slab of static and smears, while “Noru” merges tactile clatter and throbbing rhythms with blistered tones. Trying To Remember subtly merges electronic detritus with hip-hop beats in a nuanced and fresh hybrid.

Two years in the making, Bidnezz features twenty-two head-nodders from Travis Stewart (aka Machine Drum, Syndrone, and Tstewart). In this case, the multiple monikers make perfect sense, given how much Bidnezz's chopped vocals and glitchy hip-hop inhabit an entirely different galaxy from Salmataxia's chilly electronics, a fact made abundantly clear once the strangulated, groaning voice snippets of “Disa Bling” appear. Again there's no shortage of strong material. Microsample voice fragments recall Akufen in “Stevie Bam Jackson” though Stewart situates them within a funk mix of glistening keyboard melodies and minced beats rather than microhouse. Dense slabs of crackle almost drown the jazz-tinged hip-hop groove of “$$legs,” while “Offs” underscores stylistic similarities between Machine Drum and Prefuse 73. The best cut might be “Mltply” with its hiccupping drop-outs, melancholy melodic motifs, and frenetically shredded beats but it's merely one strong piece on an album teeming with them.

Even though one could be devised, a best-to-worst list for the three discs really misses the point. These are three dramatically different sounding yet uniformly excellent releases, all of them testifying to Merck's ever-broadening stylistic range and current state of health—that's what one should glean from the preceding.

January 2005