Mark Fell and Ben Vida at Cafe Oto, 28/9/11

Mark Fell

Mark Fell took to the Cafe Oto stage wearing a cap with the logo of the tractor manufacturer John Deere on it. Could there be anything more incongruous? Fell’s music is far from agricultural, being a repurposing of Detroit techno stylings, by way of the Sheffield electronic avant-garde. Come to think of it, techno in Oto is itself slightly out of place, although Fell’s is a particularly complex and challenging take on it. Intelligent Dance Music may be a Very Stupid Music Label, but Fell’s records (and those born of his partnership with Mat Steel, SND) do light up synapses that few others manage. Tonight at Oto he was joined by Ben Vida, another artist creating some experimental sonics, to complete a mind-expanding line-up.

Ben Vida

Ben Vida may be better known as a member of Chicago post-rock troupe Town and Country, but his recent work has pushed him in a very different direction. His proficiency with analogue synthesizers is such that he recently featured on a split LP with one of its current Dons, none other than Keith Fullerton Whitman, on which he was by no means outclassed. His music features a great deal of automation, much like tossing pebbles into the water and letting the ripples interact, overlap and ultimately make beautiful and intricate patterns. The crisp sounds mutated gradually, an oscillation becoming a pulsation, and the pulsation in turn becoming percussion. He threw in a few more choice stones, the output becoming thrillingly complex and unpredictable, before the waves ebbed and fizzed once more to shore.

Much like Fell’s recent set at London’s Village Underground, he began here at Cafe Oto with what sounded like a section from 2010’s excellent Multistability album, the sound seemingly patting its head and rubbing its tummy simultaneously, flickering between two alternate states, with conflicting rhythmic patterns slipping confusingly in and out of phase. This music demands work from the listener; you have to, to paraphrase Coltrane, try to move your imagination toward the sound, follow its rhythms and its colours. Much like staring too intently at strobe lighting, this runs the risk of overheating the brain. Sounds (and synapses, perhaps) exploded, like fireworks across the full sonic spectrum, their patterns and trails bleeding into another. As the set progressed, Fell seemed to draw much more heavily from his techno influences, with electronic handclaps and synth stabs being aggressively sliced into the mix; again as he did in Village Underground, which was a slightly more receptive space (dark, subterranean, with visuals) for this sort of thing than the more relaxed surroundings of Cafe Oto. In the end, the incongruity was to be the set’s downfall, with the energy levels of the music unable to fully translate to the audience. Still, this was first and foremost a workout for the mind, not the body.

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Mark Fell, Multistability (Raster-Noton)

Multistability

Multistability is the branch of Gestalt psychology in which things are perceived in more than one state. It is usually used to describe images like the Necker Cube, or the Rubin Vase, those strange optical illusions which, when you try to focus on them, seem to pulse between two different and wholly contradictory forms, but can also be used with reference to auditory trickery. Trickery like this new album by Mark Fell, one half of Sheffield’s Raster-Noton duo SND. Given that Fell’s last solo album, 2004’s Ten Types Of Elsewhere, focused on “a link between objects and alterity through spatial and temporal deformations, twistings, rotatings, reflections and stretchings”, I think it is fair to say he has form in this field. Or that field. Or both.

Multistability is the sort of album which is released in late November to make those publications which have already compiled their best of the year lists (not guilty, thankfully) look absolutely ridiculous. Monolake did likewise last year with Silence, and Multistability shares with that album both a surgical sonic precision and the sense that its creator has been listening to a lot of very current music; as such, it fits well with the recent Raster-Noton 12″ series, including the razor sharp Kangding Ray release. It begins with a staccato techno clarion call which almost immediately starts varying tempo and mixing with glitch and a rhythm which sounds like a metal ball being dropped onto a metal plate from height. The tension between those warm synthetic sounds and cold, harsh textures continues to fascinate throughout in a variety of settings: Track 5A reduces these elements to morse code like strings, while the miniature 5B sees techno organ stabs swapping, swapping, swapping with harsh, spitting noise. The fastidiousness of the arrangement is highlighted best on 9, electronic melody blended together with a rhythmic composition to match a Chris Corsano drum solo, the beat sliced til it is wafer thin, and assembled with the finesse of a Michelin starred chef.

As with Ten Types Of Elsewhere, Multistability both lacks – and indeed benefits from the lack of – SND’s more linear, rhythmic obsessions, being more fractured and abstract, with a more minimalist approach which encourages us to dwell on the sounds as much as the patterns, and in particular on the interaction between different elements. For a minimalist electronica album, the amount of non-linear information that it requires you to process can be confusing, at times completely overwhelming; it swings violently from left to right, speeds up and down without warning. Listening to this outside on headphones, I’ve actually found it difficult to walk in a straight line; the bushes and gutters of North London are not safe when I’m listening to this. Different rhythms and sounds compete for the same headspace, channels fading in and out in disorientating fashion – you lock onto something, it vanishes, and something else arrives in its place. Multistability.