Kassel Jaeger: Toxic Cosmopolitanism
Klara Lewis: Ett
Somewhat of an intimidating aura attends Editions Mego releases, in that while they prove rewarding for the listener in the long run, they also demand some heavy lifting along the way. But these recent outings, while not lacking in cerebral content and conceptual heft, are easy to warm up to and, in fact, can be enjoyed as purely musical products separate from whatever ideas their creators had in mind for the projects.
The conceptually bolder of the two is Toxic Cosmopolitanism, the second full-length for Editions Mego by Kassel Jaeger, a Paris-based acousmatic specialist and GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) member whose birth name is François Bonnet. An interesting tension between creation and destruction is thematically explored on the album, particularly in its side-long title piece, as Jaeger draws upon instruments such as West African balafon, Tibetan gongs, and Pan flutes to build his material yet generally strips away or at least camouflages their identifying character in doing so. Reinforcing the theme is the fact that the four settings comprising the second side's “Exposure Scales” suite use the sounds of the title piece as raw material for their own content. There would certainly seem to be a political undercurrent to the project: both the title and content of “Toxic Cosmopolitanism” raise the question of whether such a deployment of other cultures' sound materials is a way of honouring them with attention or yet another instance of exploitation and plunder. That Jaeger has elected to conceal the original instrument sounds within the album content suggests what his own answer might be.
The twenty-five-minute title track often plays like a recording created with custom-made instruments by some long-hidden tribe newly discovered in the Papua New Guineau region. The music on the one hand sounds alien, as if uninfluenced by the music produced by other cultures, yet also familiar in its accessible presentation. Emerging as if from sleep, the piece slowly gains in strength and definition as industrial-tinged emissions and crackles flicker through the mist and punctuate the haze like chattering creatures calling out to one another. A sense of urgency sets in as the cross-patterning grows more complex, after which the activity level dies down and quieter episodes featuring eroded strings-like outpourings, bell tones, and electrical drones appear. “Toxic Cosmopolitanism” ultimately registers as a sound collage or travelogue that guides the listener through multiple zones, each characterized by a distinctive neo-primitive sonic character, until a sense of desolation sets in during the woozier later stages.
The first of four parts within “Exposure Scales,” “Combat” plays less like a battle than the aftermath, that period of unearthly quiet when the magnitude of the destruction wrought by combat starts to become apparent to all concerned. Its oppressive tone is alleviated somewhat by the fluttering glitches of “Sunlight,” even if a dark melodic entity imbues the material with mournfulness, and “Tide,” a miniature tone poem of extraterrestrial character whose insistent thrum and angelic warble refuse to be obscured by grime, before “Poison” reinstates the tone of “Combat” with a series of spent surges.
Klara Lewis's debut release Ett is, if anything, even more accessible a collection than Jaeger's, in large part because rhythm plays a pivotal role in her constructions; in fact, it wouldn't be stretching things too much to state that some of the ten pieces on the album come close to being dance music, even if dance music of an abstract kind. It's also more straightforward in not being weighed down by the kind of conceptual baggage that Jaeger brings to his project, plus it's more playful, too. That side is evident from the start in the way she weaves myriad elements—the cascade of piano sprinkles and the hiss of a kettle, among them—into a shape-shifting mass alongside a degraded techno pulse. The club dimension remains in place for “Untilted,” though this time its bleepy microhouse pattern is peppered with the micro-stutter of a man's voice. Even when Lewis concentrates more pronouncedly on the textural presentation (e.g., “49th Hour”), a rhythm pattern still functions as an integral aspect of the design.
Titles often say much about their content, with a piece such as “Seascape” a transporting if brief reverie and “Muezzin” using a sample of a haunting call to prayer as a central element within a swirl of insistent beats and other manipulated exotica. In similar manner, a muffled glow seems to emanate off of “Shine,” another dance-based setting whose silken quality is so subtly rendered it could be described as ambient-techno. The album's longest track is the penultimate “Altered,” a haunted moodscape out of which hydraulic flickers and creature noises creep.
Put simply, Lewis assumes the role of sound sculptress in focusing on assembling found sounds, samples, field recordings, and electronic textures into beguiling song structures. And make no mistake, Lewis's pieces are songs, not soundscapes or collages, even if they're patched together from a number of disparate elements. Each one possesses a clear and distinct structure and is of a satisfying song-length duration, and Ett ultimately impresses as a collection characterized by diversity yet rendered cohesive by the guiding sensibility of its creator.