Released: Monday 6 September 2010
After a long hiatus, Berlin-based ambient electronica maestro Markus Popp aka Oval is back with O, a 70-track double album which abandons purely electronic sounds and instead takes acoustic guitars, drums and string instruments as its starting point, looping, twisting and contorting live sounds into fascinating sonic shapes. The results are splintered, experimental and unsparingly deconstructionist, right from the discordant scrapes and pings which open first track 'Panorama' and, wittily, close final track 'Happyend'. However, as is almost always the case with Oval, O retains a soothing, organic atmosphere. As with the best ambient electronica, from Brian Eno's Music for Airports to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, this is music that is content just to be, creating a complete sonic environment for the listener to experience rather than a narrative or a statement. Listening to great ambient music is akin to being immersed in nature, a sensation O achieves effortlessly.
That said, this album is livelier and more engaged than much of Oval's previous output. Witness for example, the convulsive, almost violent strings and polyrhythmic, free jazz drums of 'I Heart Musik' and 'Cyrus' or the fizzing, glitching noises of 'Dricas'. Like Autechre, Popp's gift is to transform such disconcerting noise into something beguilingly beautiful. For this album, he has also abandoned his usual method of sophisticated music production, instead choosing to work with a stock PC outfitted with stock sounds and plug-ins rather than create a custom platform. You'd have to be a real tech-head to notice though. Instead, what O highlights, more than any other Oval release, is Popp's musicianship.
What there is precious little of, however, is variation of any conventional kind, which means that, at 70 tracks (albeit short ones on disc two), this album is not for everyone. Instead, the process is everything: each track begins from the same point before Popp experiments with form and texture in a way that feels incredibly vivid and almost 'live'. The variations that occur do so in the same way as the subtle variations in Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans silkscreen paintings. This pop art connection is more significant than it may first appear: Popp has even referred to these pieces as ringtones. And the journey of creation isn't over - O has inspired a project in which a collection of film and video artists will use these tracks to create one minute films. In this way,O is an incredibly brave record and it's to the artist's credit that it is not in the slightest a chore to listen to.