Marc Houle: Drift

“This album is about the cold dark grey Berlin winter.” So says Canadian-born and now Berlin-resident Marc Houle about his third album, his first since 2006's Bay of Figs and his first for Minus. As such, Drift can be experienced as an aural diary of sorts that reflects Houle's mindset as he hunkered down in the studio during the winter of 2009-10 while the streets outside his working environment plunged into deep freeze. Such self-imposed seclusion has resulted in an album that's admittedly often bleak in tone but is also offers a refreshingly experimental and artful take on techno. Drift is not, in other words, a set of stock club bangers and ravers.

“Inside” begins the album cleverly by slowing down field recorded door-knocking until it mutates into the tune's mid-tempo snare pattern. Houle patiently adds elements one at a time, an ominous bass line first, then double-time hi-hats, echoing guitar textures, and a sickly plummeting figure, with each one deepening the track's mysterious vibe. It's techno, yes, but an arrestingly chilly take on it. During “Seeing in the Dark,” a viral bass undertow persists while sputtering smears of siren-like electronics, synthesizers, and voices make overhead passes. Powered by a wiry bass pulse and pounding beat pattern, the relentless title track grows ever more claustrophobic when its droning synth streams stretch out interminably. But not all of the album's eight tracks are so dark, however. “Sweet” gradually grows relatively sunnier when a skipping beat joins its sing-song guitar hook, and “Hitcher Man” is no less than a funky stomper that offsets its low-slung disco bass pulse and thick backbeat with the neon-lit flare of Houle's analogue synths. “Hammering” likewise ends the album with a sense of measured uplift by wedding its jaunty beat pattern to tremolo guitars and ascending chord progressions. Here and elsewhere, Houle lends his largely synthetic sound a more natural feel through the inclusion of electric guitar textures.

The word Minus is, for many, synonymous with minimal, but Houle's album, while it is stripped down to only what's necessary, is hardly minimal at all. While there is an open-ended spaciousness to the material, there's always ample detail in play (something especially evident during “Melting” when multiple tiny textures form beds of sound for the tune's thunder clusters to clatter against); one must simply listen closely and carefuly enough in order to catch it.

October 2010