Available on: Thrill Jockey 12″
Hearing that a pioneering favourite artist is set to return after a long hiatus is often as much a cause for trepidation as celebration: will they still have it? While Oval (Markus Popp) may never have achieved the commercial success of his fellow countrymen Kraftwerk, his influence on electronic music in the last decade and a half is no less significant – as much for the theoretical underpinnings of glitch, as for its musical realisation.
With these first recordings since Overcommers in 2001, Oval shows that he has lost none of his originality and musical intelligence. Styled as an EP, Oh is actually more of a mini-album, consisting of 25 minutes of music spread across 15 tracks – four ‘songs’ on side A, and 11 ‘miniatures’ on the B-side.
Oval has always challenged listeners to think about how music is made and what it’s for, at the same time as trying to blow them away with sound. As opening track ‘Hey’ fills the air, early thoughts focus on the unexpected presence of drums and guitars. Not guitars as in AC/DC: it’s all plucks, taps and scrapes, not riffs, licks and powerchords. Like glitch performed live on ‘real’ instruments. If that’s the first challenge of this new Oval music, the second comes from the awareness that there is no band: each note, each cymbal crash, has been painstakingly played by Popp alone. As he explains in more detail in a forthcoming interview with FACT, the “radical departure” of this music was “to be able to generate these phrases, make them happen exactly in this way with my own hands”.
If Oval’s return is suitably intellectually stimulating, the throwing down of a gauntlet to the electronic music community, how does it fare in terms of aural stimulation? The answer is very well. The four longer instrumental ‘songs’ of side A are rich, melodic and stand up to repeat listens. Although each features Popp’s drumming, the rhythms, as you might expect, are a long way from four-to-the-floor. ‘Grrr’, for instance, sounds like Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk covering a track from Oval’s legendary Systemisch: sparse yet incredibly complex and detailed, rooted in electronica but drawing on free jazz and rock dynamics.
Each of the drum-free ‘miniatures’ of the B-side explores a single phrase or motif for as long as Popp finds interesting (tracks range from 53 to 99 seconds in length). “On a technical level, extending the length of a track is neither a technical achievement nor a very convincing strategy, and it probably never was,” he says by way of explanation. It is to his credit that these 11 pieces, sometimes chattering, sometimes contemplative, manage neither to outstay nor understay their welcome. Equally praiseworthy is the fact that they sound all of a piece, whilst remaining distinctive and individual (‘kastell’, ‘saas fairy’, ‘kasko’ and ‘nonfiction’ are my personal favourites).
A triumphant return then for Oval, both musically and intellectually. No need for any trepidation about the forthcoming album, o, if Oh is anything to go by. This is meta-music for the soul.