Ricardo Villalobos Dependent and Happy FACT review

Available on: Perlon CD / 5×12″

Having previously stated that he doesn’t like to make albums, the announcement of Dependent And Happy, the first dedicated long-player from Ricardo Villalobos in eight years, suggested that he had found a reason to return to the format.

What this reason may be, rather than an EP or singles, is not particularly clear upon listening, although this may be due to the CD version’s format as a single 128 bpm mix of the eleven tracks; the constant tempo and blending turns this from an album into what feels like either a compromise, an assumption that this is all the audience will desire, or simply habit.

This is a shame because Villalobos presents some strange and challenging ideas throughout Dependent And Happy that could benefit from breaking awayAs is to be expected from him, the record’s production is pretty much impeccable, and he has a knack for drawing the listener in to what the process must have been like for him; shut in his studio, awe-inspiring speakers staring like some monolithic HAL, producing a totally amorphous, disconnected environment.

The initial impression given by ‘Mochnochich’ is a strong start, creeping beautifully, things growing and sliding into place. ‘Timemorf’ follows at a similarly high quality, metallic skin drums and wooden percussion flurrying around focused hi hat and kick, joined later by clouds of Rhodes. However, ‘Grumax’ signals the beginning of the album’s inconsistency, a veering into rhythms straight out of 2004 undercutting an otherwise brilliant use of distorted, bassy, Autechre-like acid lines that roll and bump off each other.

For all the incredible free-form developments he can create within even a single track, Villalobos still falls victim to the minimal house/techno style that he himself helped define. Many tracks are staid in their use of simple kick-clap grooves to provide something familiar among the often-adventurous material. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if they weren’t so omnipresent and of the particular crunchy, squelchy, flanged quality constantly found throughout the genre. From ‘Grumax’ the album also falters a little in its inclusion of productions that could be considered filler: ‘Ferenc’ is solid, but not so engaging; ‘I’m Counting’ takes a tabla tutorial and chops it around a simple, crunching 1-2 grid, but it isn’t a particularly inspiring use of the sample sourced, and its inclusion on this album is confusing; ‘Samma’, ‘Koito’ and a large part of ‘Tu Actitud’ are all also nice enough, although not remarkable compared to the strongest material.

The strengths, however, are very impressive. Villalobos’ smothering, intoxicating take on jazz found elsewhere within Dependent And Happy could quite easily be anything heard in a modern concert hall. ‘Put Your Lips’ skitters and twitches around snare rolls and high, wet, processed percussion licks. Submerged pads carry a moody harmony beneath sample streams that roll and transform constantly; details shoot out of the cracks in small explosions and gushing gestures, shaping the rhythmic focus of the track in a totally plastic fashion. ‘Die Schwarze Massai’ ends the album on a soft industrial lean, the pulse satisfyingly hard to place in its sly rhythmic ambiguity, quiet rising motifs perfectly hidden away in the background. ‘Zuipox’, with its (again) Autechre-like synths and wildly fluctuating, largely textural content and obtuse structure, is the album highlight – huge, sprawling and self-involved.

With such craft on display it is difficult to shake the notion that while eagerly embracing and accomplishing one challenge by anchoring sound design to instantly familiar dance metres, Villalobos may be selling himself short on another. By dropping the blatant 4/4 grooves, using them sparingly, or simply applying more variation, the best moments of his music could become even more immersive – and immersive it truly is, when given the room to push convention to its limits.

Spanning across five records, the vinyl release of Dependent And Happy may offer a different, more variable experience with less predictability, due to the restrictions of the format. Until then, this CD version has some outstanding moments, and at times is a masterful lesson in dream-like production.

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