Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: Gagarin - Biophilia

Yeah, this is more like it. When I reviewed Gagarin's last album, which was five minutes ago in real time but may as well be five hundred thousand years ago if you've just happened in from Google, I was impressed by his potentially widescreen adaptation of well-worn IDM techniques, but disappointed that he only took that approach on a couple of tracks. Well, his new album Biophilia does exactly that, and so it pushes all my pleasure buttons and potentially goes down as one of my favourite albums of 2011.

Now, I should point out that I don't know shit about Gagarin. I bought his last album blind from a second hand store, and Discogs tells me he'd already had four or five LPs out over a ten year career prior to 2008's Adaptogen. So perhaps he's already done this sound to death, Adaptogen was the boundary-pushing album and Biophilia is a regressive piece of unadventurous wank. This just goes to show that our prior listening experiences totally colour how we hear something, something a lot of music hacks don't seem to take into account. I can always spot a reviewer who's been given a promo CD and simply done some reading up on the artist before taking a listen. The tone is totally different from someone who actually knows the artists and/or the scene inside out. I tend to prefer the latter. Sure, talking like a scene insider can be totally alienating to today's MP3-hording eclectic hipster audience who just likes interesting music, man, and will give anything a chance. But I don't like this way the Internet gets people to listen to music without any consideration of its origin, just divorcing everything and interpreting it through the bland homogenising critical lens of the MP3 blog.

Anyway, back to Biophilia. What I like about this album is that it has lots of big, soaring moments in it, which is something not much IDM actually does. IDM is generally too clever-clever and self-consciously subtle and challenging to go for big, emotionally affecting moments that would really stir your soul. Which is not to put a slight on IDM as such - there's a lot to be said for music that doesn't just give you big, manipulative, obvious emotional cues, and the harder you have to listen, the more rewarding the outcome. But there is a middle ground we all move through. When you first start listening to music, and by that I mean really start loving music for the first time, you're drawn in by what we call Gateway Music - music which is very easily digestible and gives it you on a plate. By the end of your musical career you're listening to avant-jazz and minimal static drone, your listening ear has become so refined and weary only the deepest and most challenging music has any interest left for you. This is, of course, a massive and simplistic stereotypical generalisation, but at the same time it's essentially true.

Right now I've been listening to music properly for about a decade, and while I'm at the point I definitely want subtle and challenging music, I still like my big moments and certain approachable sensibilities to temper the experimentalism. Maybe in a few years I'll only want to listen to latter-era Autechre because the swelling cinematic moments on Biophilia will just sound way too obvious, in the same way I once used to get a massive rush from the huge breakdowns in epic trance records but now I find them totally childish and cringe-worthy. But at the same time, I've found my tastes are getting more stable as time goes on. When you're 15 years old you can double or triple the amount of music you've heard year on year, and everything is so new and different to you your tastes grow and change rapidly. I'm not by any means saying I've got to the point of settling into a listening rut, like all those sad bastards who only listen to music from the period just because they got into a long-term relationship for the record of their life, but even though I'm hearing hundreds, if not thousands, of new records every year across an ever-expanding array of genres, I now have a stable musical identity, certain things that consistently push my buttons across all genres and areas. That reflects in my DJing - whether I'm spinning drum 'n bass, dubstep, ambient or techno, there is a recognisable thing I look for and get out of music, and listeners always comment on that. And what that amounts to is a taste for enveloping, spacey atmospherics and a certain love of cinematic, dramatic sounds. All of which this album has in spades. This is basically an IDM album tailored for me.

Don't get me wrong, this ain't Hans Zimmer-joins-Warp. I also don't want to suggest this IDM for beginners, because that would be grossly unfairly. I'm merely musing on why this album hits the spot for me much more than the last one, and more than most IDM in general. There are plenty of reserved tracks on here, but also three or four that build up to beautiful crescendos and offer the kind of picture-painting evocation I want to hear. It gives the album more dynamics and variety, as well. The only track I don't like very much is the closer, Dopplar, which sounds like the background music from the village in some generic early-90s fantasy RPG where you buy health potions and chat to some sad-looking barmaid who had her father stolen by goblins. Which very much does not push my buttons. Videogame sounds in general can go fuck themselves in music. I grew up with a SNES as well, and MIDI bleeps still sound like shit, people. Anyway, to recap: this is excellent. Best new IDM album I've heard in quite some time.

Genre: IDM
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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