On Dark Silent Off
, January 11th, 2017 12:45
Having come to life when the Austrian capital was something of a hub for new strands of glitchy electronica at the turn of the century (see Fennesz), instrumental trio Radian have been on a steady journey inwards. Since the sparsely engineered sound structures of their debut (on Vienna’s own glitch hub Mego) back in 2000, Radian’s albums on Thrill Jockey over the last decade-and-a-half have steadily pulled themselves together. Like cosmic nebula the music has slowly collapsed inward, forming tighter, denser compositions on every album.
Though largely comprising bass, drums, and guitar (plus the odd synth), the trio have never sounded much like a real ‘band’ on previous recordings. They more often resemble a laptop musician or single collagist hard at work. It lies in the process behind their songwriting, where rather than riffs and melodies, music is written around happenstance chunks of sound. They’ve often focused tightly in on the sort of sonic detritus engineers spend their careers erasing from the studio: bass hum, fretboard scrapes, the accidental tinkle of a snare rim or cymbal stand, the pop of a jack leads getting plugged in. It’s kept the heart and soul of the players at an arm’s length throughout their career, rendering them somewhat coldly as sound scientists completing strange musical jigsaws from pieces that really shouldn’t fit. On Dark Silent Off somewhat shifts the balance, seeing the players pour a bit more of themselves into music that is more of a living breathing human-machine hybrid than any of the albums it follows.
Aptly for a band that tend towards pockets of silence, On Dark Silent Off follows the largest gap in the trio’s studio time yet - a full seven years lie between this and 2009’s Chimeric. The intervening period saw departure of original guitarist/synth player Stefan Németh, replaced by nimble German guitarist Martin Siewert (who amongst other things plays with Mats Gustafsson in indefinable trio Fake The Facts). The lineup shift is pretty seamless though, and this certainly picks up where Chimeric left off. That album had several moments of near-post-rock crescendos miraculously emerging from glitchy beds of guitar hum and drum kit scrapes. Those moments felt like they’d been a long time coming too, the rhythms of drummer of Martin Brandlmayr having grown increasingly busy and groovy over a preceding decade of activity, and bassist John Norman more often weaving hooky lines to latch on to.
So now we hit their most approachable album yet. It’s unusual for a recommended entry point into a band’s discography to be their fifth album in sixteen years, but On Dark Silent Off could undoubtedly win Radian new listeners. It holds far more easter eggs for fans of guitar music than any previous release, and collects more than enough krauty grooves to keep the Julian Copes of the world happy. All the while it also retains the goods to delight any weirdos keen on that inhuman sparsity and alien bleeps of their previous work.
‘Pickup Pickout’ kicks off the album with some typically humming guitar, electronics, and vibraphone hums, but Brandlmayr’s nimble drumming kicks in within record time. The stereo field flutters with bleeps, pops, and buzzes, but the core of the tune is an outright jam of funkified snare hits, muted guitar plucks, and yearning bass lines. It’s as if Radian found their inner Can (circa Ege Bamyasi). In fact, the way Brandlmayr handles his sticks takes me back to the disappointment I felt listening to the many Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit collaborations. Having fantasised about a searing marriage of glorious ‘Halleluhwah’ grooves and 21st century electronics, it was a let down to get served such an aggressively mediocre series of sessions. On Dark Silent Off is far closer to the exciting kraut-tronica I’d lusted after just like that hip dude at the Jon Hopkins show in a Neu! shirt.
What they describe as this “microscopic” method of ‘zooming in’ on sounds - i.e. building tracks around snippets of fluke hums, bleeps, and taps - has two key effects on the music. First of all, it wields an amplified sense of closeness and intimacy rarely heard outside of Blue Note jazz. You feel like a gnat landing on a tom drum would come across in the recording. Secondly, it leads Radian’s compositions (like they always have) treading unpredictable routes. Largely jettisoning more strictly tessellation chords and melodies in favour of sonic lego bricks one could assemble into just about any form makes for some strange suites of non-sequiturs and jagged surprise turns. The title track wanders from a subtle glitchy humscape to a jangly minute or two of plucked guitar beauty (even replete with an acoustic guitar), then segueing into a rumbling crescendo of distorted bass, snare, and processed tones. With music like this, repeat listens always prove hugely rewarding, enabling stirring new passages and sounds to all of a sudden emerge, as if they’d been written in disappearing ink.