Available on: 50 Weapons LP
Anstam, then a duo, emerged in 2007 with their own stark vision for dubstep: a rough-edged, techno-inflected hybrid that straddled scenes and sounds in the elegant way that the finest productions of that era could. Since then, German producer Lars Stöwe – now working solo – has embraced the album format with a thoroughness that’s rare in the dance music world: last year’s Dispel Dances was not an easily divisible record, and certainly not a dancefloor-friendly one, so much as a single, sprawling statement of intent. Those who were seduced by the ruthless concision of those early singles were, understandably, a little perplexed by this new direction – but there was no denying its boldness in a sphere where full-length records are too often low-concept, timid affairs.
Stones And Woods, for better or for worse, sees Stöwe delve yet further into the possibilities of the unique sonic world he’s built for himself. The rugged breakbeats and industrial techno accoutrements that have become Anstam trademarks are present throughout, and at points achieve something approaching dancefloor pressure – in the measured lope of ‘My Dreams Are Made Of Steam’, for example. But they are just as often undermined: ‘Me And Them’ pits brilliant, scorched drum work against a limp vocal to bizarrely camp effect. Odd contrast and gleeful disjunct are the order of the day here.
Of course, Stöwe’s approach isn’t without precedent. The golden age of IDM is clearly a reference point, not only in its specificities – brilliantly detailed percussive edits (see ‘Handsome Dances The Dance’) and glossy, mechanistic synth figures reminiscent of early Autechre (the end of ‘Me And Them’) – but as a broader philosophy: the idea of stretching and exploding dance forms into something more structurally tortuous and texturally polychrome. At points there’s even a brash, proggish tendency at work, revealing a taste for the grandiose-verging-on-ridiculous – a steroidal slapbass line here, an egregiously noodly synth passage there. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or turn the thing off.
Steve Reich is also among those cited as an influence, and his hand can perhaps be detected in the scintillating marimba figures of opener ‘Morning Shiver Down The Blackwood River’. But for the most part, Stöwe seems phobic of hypnotic repetition – instead, ideas are kept perpetually moving, developing and growing, melodies restlessly dancing away from the familiar, structures crudely wrenching themselves out of joint. It’s a strategy that has the potential to be captivating – but too often makes for an infuriating listen. The majority of these tracks appear to promise one thing and then, abruptly changing their mind partway through, deliver entirely another. The result is a jarring collage of moods and intensities that seems to reject attempts at immersion.
Put simply, there’s no denying that Stones And Woods stands alone, a bright and strange pinprick in the firmament of contemporary club music – but that doesn’t mean it’s good. At points, Stöwe manages to reign in his more quixotic tendencies to relatively convincing effect – ‘Handsome Dances The Dance’, its gloopy chords punctuated by flickering, heavily reverbed percussion; the beatless synth interlude ‘Time Will Show You Who I Am’, where Stöwe’s keyboard meanderings take on an unexpectedly wistful quality. But the lion’s share of this album is sprawling, confused, and almost grotesquely misshapen – a grand experiment with disappointing results.