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We Move Through Negative Spaces Ben Graham , March 29th, 2011 11:14

Technology pulls us ever onward, whether we like it or not. Labour-saving devices give us greater leisure time, yet the free moments we gain seem increasingly fractured and pressurised. From the simple, hard, agrarian way of life rendered obsolete by the Industrial Revolution, to the equally game-changing advance of digital communications technology within our own lifetimes, burdens of toil once considered inevitable are lifted, while once-undreamt-of possibilities are placed easily within reach. The old tasks can be achieved so much quicker, but the list of new things to do can seem almost infinite. And as with so many revolutions, the saviour can soon turn tyrant, as we find we are merely marching to the beat of a different drum; a drum that beats faster with every round.

Such is the train of thought triggered by listening to Kontakte's second album: a record of sweeping, skyscraping post-rock instrumentals driven - indeed characterised - by the spring-coiled skittergrind beats of its IDM-influenced electronic drum programmes. At its best, as on 'Early Evening Bleeds into Night,' where the low drone of ominous strings and sombre piano notes are ever harried by clicking, nagging clicks, whirrs and taps, the music seems to act as a metaphor for the human condition and its relationship with its own technological advances. It's in the way the organic musical sounds always seem to want to hang back, slow and spacious, exploring each moment, letting the sadness and the possibilities resonate in the spaces between the notes, while the mechanical rhythm track is constantly urging them forward. If it acts as an irritant then it's also enlivening, providing purpose and forward momentum where otherwise there might just be navel-gazing reveries, decadent dreams and languid, Proustian yearnings for days lost, as represented here by the keening, almost Romany violin-like lead guitar melody.

Second track, 'Hope...'is typical, sounding like a machine-driven, mid-period Mogwai, the familiar (if still effective) quiet-loud clichés giving way to an exhilarating rush as the drums charge maniacally ahead of the endlessly descending guitars, which resolutely refuse to move beyond an elegiac plod as ripples of unfolding melody ascend, Cure-like, to the seemingly singular surface. On 'The Owls Won't See Us In Here,' the beats even sound like whip cracks, driving a musical wagon train that seems to shape-shift, under their relentless urging, from an aging mule on a mountain path to a western steam train in full reckless flight before our inner eye. And the crisp, melodic, bell-like guitar refrain of 'With Glowing Hearts' is forced first this way then that by nagging, nipping, mosquito-like percussive tics, until corrugated sheets of metallic noise descend on every side, penning the tune within.

Elsewhere, as on 'A Snowflake in Her Hand', the electronics are less intrusive, complementing rather than battling against the natural flow of the organic instruments, which are allowed to move forward at their own pace. Both approaches work, but Kontakte's music is most interesting when the tensions are exaggerated and explored, with melody and rhythm pulling against each other and forging new, unexpected shapes as a result.

Unfortunately, Kontakte seem too often content to ape the standard clichés of grandiose, "cinematic" post-rock, as laid down originally by the likes of Mogwai, Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, and since become over-familiar film and TV soundtrack fodder. Opening track 'Astrolagus' is a case in point, as is 'Every Passing Hour,' where weeping guitars, piano and fake-analog hum are arranged over a distant recording of children playing- surely the post-rock equivalent of the 'funky drummer' beat in old school hip-hop. It then fades into the inevitable ten-minute-plus closing track, which needless to say builds slowly towards an epic crescendo of nothing in particular. Even the predictably pretentious title ('The Ocean Between You and Me') makes it sound as though it were written for an airline advert; canned gravitas, instant significance, pop-out portent, a sense of drama without narrative or consequence.

It's a criticism that could be levelled at many of their peers however, and Kontakte are by no means the guiltiest party when it comes to painting epic-by-numbers. As technology enables anyone with the inclination to conjure mad orchestral follies nightly in their bedroom, so musical movements that would not long ago have been emotionally devastating now seem merely run of the mill, and sounds that were once jaw-dropping now just leave us jaded. Played loud enough, at the right moment, possibly outdoors on a warm night (but still with a certain chill in the air), this album could still have the power to stir you profoundly. It remains to be seen whether you, or I, or anyone, can still make time enough in our lives for that to happen.