After a good many years in the wilderness (nine, in fact, separate O's full-length predecessor, 2001's Ovalcommers, and the Oh EP, which preceded O by a month) Markus Popp returns with new Oval material—seventy tracks worth—but even more importantly with an entirely re-imagined approach to the Oval project. Gone are the mini-cyclones of electronic fuzz that dotted releases such as Szenariodisk (1999) and Ovalprocess (2000), and in their place are electro-acoustic settings of guitar (I presume), drums, and electronic treatments, the emphasis now clearly on Popp as a musician playing the instruments as opposed to a producer manipulating a machine's output (part of the reason for Popp's absence is that he needed woodshedding time to develop the musical skills needed to produce the new material). In his earlier work, the Berlin-based producer relinquished some of the control to software programs that generated the music. To create O, Popp used a $500 stock PC outfitted with cheap, commercially available software and plug-ins instead of programming his own.
The first disc's twenty tracks are both short and long (long a relative term as the longest is under five minutes), with some settings featuring drums and some restricted to guitar and effects only. Some tracks on the first disc could be called post-rock, if only because of their guitar-drums focus and their semi-improvised feel. But the label's also misleading as clearly O shares little in common with typical post-rock reference points (i.e., Explosions In The Sky, Mogwai). Popp's drum playing style is loose but not so loose it feels totally random. He uses ride and crash cymbals, hi-hat, snare, and bass drum to punctuate the fractured guitar patterns with splashes of atmospheric colour—a more painterly than structured approach, as it were. Supplemental to that, Popp coaxes a wide range of Oval-like sounds from the guitar with jagged splinters of slivers, shards, whirrs, flickers, and pops strewn across a given track; the broken angles and perspectives of Cubism come to mind as Popp seemingly disregards some of the basic conventions of harmony and consonance in his handling of the instrument. In “Panorama,” violent stabs puncture a mood of becalmed dreaminess, while “Brahms Mania” nurtures a contemplative mood, with microsounds scurrying across distorted string shudders, until drums surface to become the focal point. Popp picks at electronic scabs during “Cry” and crafts thistles of electro-acoustic sounds in “Dolo.” Ultimately, isolating individual tracks seems misguided when the twenty pieces function as a unified tapestry that neverthless leaves room for occasional contrasts to emerge.
Disc two presents fifty tracks in sixty-one minutes, with logically most of them in the one-minute range. By their very nature concise, the settings—Popp has even described them as “ringtones”—are on the whole prettier than the ones on disc one. Many tracks sparkle light-heartedly and being drum-free are therefore airier; the guitar's flutter is heard in uncluttered manner, and at times the instrument's crystalline glint resembles more a harp than a guitar (“Klack”). There's an almost hymnal character to “Koral” that bolsters its appeal, while the bright wheeze of “Kukicha” calls to mind an accordion playing. There're also arresting moments of jaunty pop (“Jank”) and skitter (“Project Evergreen”). Again, however, it makes even less sense to single out individual pieces when the impact is mostly cumulative and when the tracks are so evanescent.
The new material, while experimental, isn't unmusical, something that doesn't, after all, surprise, given that Popp's artistic persona has always been evident in the work he's released. And while the production methods he brings to the new material might be radically different than the earlier output, the overall character of O retains hallmarks of the Oval style (disc two's “Expo,” “Java,” and “Chronograph,” to cite three examples, flutter and skip like tracks of old, even if they're dressed in new garb). In short, despite changes in instrumentation, the Oval sensibility remains intact, which helps make the consistently vibrant O register as a startling re-invention of the long-standing project.