A Series Of Shocks
, April 4th, 2014 06:16
For three decades now, Tobias Freund has been powering developments in the German electronic music scene from many places. Whether initially as part of Neue Deutsche Welle duo Vo Ese, his '90s collaborative projects with legends Dandy Jack and Atom Heart, his later, famed experimental duo NSI. alongside Max Loderbauer, or his voluminous solo recordings; there are few who have made such strong contributions to modern electronic music. He has avowed himself as a technician rather than a musician, but his vast knowledge of musical movements of the past three decades and deep background in experimental electronics means that few understand the technological aspect as well as him, especially after the decades he has spent in Frankfurt and Berlin as a hired studio gun who puts his own very distinctive stamp on projects he is brought in to work on.
Under his own name, Freund has also managed a significant discography dating back to 2006 on renown labels like Logistic and Wagon Repair, but it is his alliance with Ostgut Ton that has brought his own name most compellingly to the fore. Since 2008 he has appeared with an increasing number of productions on the imprint that have bolstered its more experimental side, notably with his 2011 album Leaning Over Backwards, an expectedly accomplished piece whose Wire-referencing title also pointed out the producer's roots in the pre-techno era of electronic music. The album itself displayed an unconventional combination of NSI.-esque experimental production touches, pop songs, and esoteric dancefloor fodder that rigorously expanded the envelope of the label's sound.
A superficially more conventional, heads-down techno album than its predecessor, A Series of Shocks sees Freund thickening his production sound to a much greater extent than his usual spare minimalism and delivering a focused, richly detailed album of dancefloor music. While this may at first seem like a step back for someone with an artistic history as rich as Freund, the actual result is more of a blessing in disguise as few producers can imitate the sort of expertise he brings to the boards. It's quite fair to say that whatever is lost here in interesting experimental moments is made up for by enveloping production details which, when combined with his often unconventional musical choices, propel the record into an accomplishment that stands on its own.
Essentially the ingredients are quite simple – Freund's array of old-school analogue gear, an extremely literate interpretation of classic techno ideas like acid and drum machine patterning, and, with the notable exception of opener 'Entire', 'Heartbeat', and 'Instant', typically idiosyncratic melodic and production choices that push things far past workmanlike ideas into the realm of sound art. The three mentioned pieces are as close as Tobias comes here (or ever) to techno conventions, albeit still with an execution that few can easily match. The trio is essentially archetype techno tracks – an ambient opener, a building acid track, and a harder dancefloor acid jam – but if anyone can make the claim to have laid the foundation for these sounds certainly he can.
The rest of the album takes a more experimental tact. As noted, Freund has thickened his sound here, and the primary tool utilised this is an exquisitely virtuosic application of reverb, delay, and panning that places his ideas in a much larger, more detailed sound stage for compelling results. A track like the halfway marker 'The Scheme of Things', which is essentially a minimalist acid piece, instead gets turned into a thickly shifting bed of ambient hiss and moans that are seemingly entirely sourced from unusual applications of reverb and delay feedback. 'Testcard' is stranger and less easy to dissect with a central bass sequence providing a single stable point for abstract, irregular-sounding rhythmic pulses and distant, reverb-laden scraping; the atmosphere refuses to clarify for the duration. Several others – 'Ya Po', 'He Said', and 'Fast Null' – occupy territory where a simple overall composition of drum machines and sequence patterns is subjected to increasing layering and bizarre production touches until it becomes something quite unique.
At the pinnacle of the strangeness spectrum is 'If', whose unchanging kick-snare pattern, underpinned by an understated but insistent bass figure, eventually gets subsumed in a sea of swirling ambience until Drexciyan synthesisers enter and power it until its conclusion. The Detroit duo never managed anything as densely textured as this though, and repeated close listening reveals fascinating interactions between the drum patterns in the piece and the well of reverberations that threatens to consume nearly everything around them. It's also here where Freund's touch for fine detailing of his tracks is most noticeable. Slow addition of rhythmic material, notably the delay shots, gradually intensify the momentum, and throughout the duration a combination of new and repeated but transformed elements play out in enveloping fashion and refuse to settle down.
The most experimental moments of Freund's long catalogue stand easily apart from almost any other producer in electronic music, but it is clear on A Series of Shocks that he set his mark at refining rather than reinventing the wheel. A piece like the lovely 'Cursor Item Only', with its spacious melodicism and deftly produced, breathing atmospheres, has clear touch points in the lineage of German experimental electronic music from the pre-techno era. Like most of the album, the quality of its execution is what so succinctly sets it upon ground few can follow Freund onto. Much has been made recently about the resurgence of simpler, rawer sounds in dance music, and in truth this trend is helping to make dancefloors more exciting by trimming a distinct tendency towards needlessly refined music that lacks impact. Simplicity is a concept that a minimalist like Freund clearly understands though, and there is a danger in swinging too far in that direction. With its immense depth of detail in its production and virtuosity in its execution, A Series Of Shocks achieves a rare and careful balance between impact, convention, and experimentalism that places Tobias Freund in a class of very few peers.