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How innovation got old: a study of ‘Traditional Synthesizer Music’

| Thursday, March 3, 2016

how-innovation-got-old-web-Erin McAuliffe | The Observer

Venetian Snares has been busy. The prolific electronic composer, who brought a semblance of notoriety to the breakcore genre he helped pioneer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has slowed his output considerably in the past decade but not for lack of ideas. Rather, as he made clear in an announcement to his fans in mid-2015, his output has stagnated under the pressure of “very serious financial trouble.” But fortunately for Aaron Funk, the man behind the project, his loyal fan base subsequently flooded him with donations. Maybe this means that Funk will not go the way of van Gogh; certainly it has enabled him to return to the studio and release all-new music. Following last year’s quickly-assembled “Thank You for Your Consideration,” a free download that doubled as Funk’s token of gratitude to his benefactors, “Traditional Synthesizer Music” is the latest installation in the Venetian Snares musical saga of electronic experimentation.

This time around, Funk elected to produce an album solely through the use of modular synthesizers, to which the music owes its characteristic early-electronic sound. Of course, this decision is hardly a creative obstruction — Funk has clearly tamed his instruments to work the usual wonders. Indeed, the tracks on this LP are bouncy, aggressive and hyperactive, and in terms of quality, Funk certainly does not disappoint. But he doesn’t quite impress either. The sound of this LP doesn’t deviate from the project’s typical sound; it’s pleasantly familiar, but not exactly refreshing.

This problem is not unique to Funk. Indeed, to achieve a fresh sound using familiar techniques is the greatest hurdle that has kept many of the pioneers of the so-called IDM umbrella genre from maintaining their relevance in the electronic landscape of today. Boards of Canada, once the poster boys of industrial downtempo, stuck to formula on their tepidly-received “The Campfire Headphase” in 2005 and retreated into obscurity soon thereafter. Once one of underground electronica’s most prominent names, Aphex Twin virtually disappeared after the flop of his uninspired LP “Drukqs” in 2001. Ambient house group The Orb has precariously remained afloat amid ill-informed forays into reggae-infused techno. Massive Attack’s 2010 would-be comeback “Heligoland” was haunted by the specter of their former glory. Members of Drexciya and LFO literally died, bringing those projects to a whimpering halt. Of course, the list goes on.

Evidently, artists and even genres that cannot evolve (and this evolution could very well be wholly unorthodox) with the times are set to become history. While Boards of Canada released the wonderfully alien “Tomorrow’s Harvest” in 2013 and Aphex Twin took the Grammy for “Syro” in 2015, many of the rest — Venetian Snares included — simply have not been able to revitalize their sound for the new decade. So while “Traditional Synthesizer Music” would have been revolutionary 20 or even 15 years ago — in Funk’s heyday — today it quite passively recedes into the background, overtaken by the output of electronic frontrunners like Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca, Jlin and so on.

I will always admire Funk’s artistic capabilities. This is the guy who gave modern classical music electroshock therapy on “Rossz Csillag Alatt Született” — one of IDM’s signature LPs and a demonstration of music in one its most out-of-the-box forms. And I am sure that just as he did it once, he can do it again. But then again, “Traditional Synthesizer Music” is Funk “doing it again.” If projects like Venetian Snares are to thrive today, what they need to understand, rather, is that the world doesn’t want them to do it again. It wants to hear them innovate, work their magic in a wholly new and unexpected way.

Rating: 3/5 shamrocks

Artist: Venetian Snares

Album: “Traditional Synthesizer Music”

Label: Timesig

If you like: Dntel, Boards of Canada, Ryoji Ikeda

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  • ojo

    satire?