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Hive Mind Angus Finlayson , February 15th, 2012 11:25

Snaking its way around gently pastoral synth textures and the rattling of digi-bongo rolls in the opening to 'Israel' is a monologue. It's difficult to pick out coherent sentences - lashings of reverb and a fuggy, indistinct mix suggest that clarity isn't of the utmost concern here - but it gradually becomes apparent that we're hearing some kind of speech or sermon. The speaker is impassioned and authoritative; at one point, an opportune lull in the music reveals the phrase, "the internet has become this place for evil."

Given Daniel Martin-McCormick's affiliations with the omnivorous post-noise underground, this monologue is probably deployed with a sense of irony - a gently mocking commentary on the deep mistrust which with the web is treated by those not born into its wombing embrace. Then again, maybe not - in a recent interview with Quietus scribe Rory Gibb talking about this, his first full-length album as Ital, Martin-McCormick remarked that, "the large theme of the record was just this feeling of [the] inescapable... the crushing aspect of society... the glacial onslaught of the world we've made for ourselves."

It's an ambivalence that informs almost all debate about the internet's role in contemporary culture. Is there an ethical dimension to be taken into account with music like Ital's, which draws so heavily on the club for its inspiration - Martin-McCormick cites Omar S as a major influence, and the Workshop crew are undoubtedly a reference point - but subsists largely through the internet? The pejorative 'hipster house' has been bandied about - the implication perhaps being that the aesthetic at work with Ital (and his associates on Not Not Fun sublabel 100% Silk) is kind of touristic - vampiric, even.

As it happens, and in spite of the evocative title, Hive Mind isn't particularly 'internetty' in the sense we've come to understand it. It would be easy to talk up the sampladelic nature of the record, given that Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston make appearances in the opening track alone - but really the bricolage of culture-detritus plays only a minor role. Martin-McCormick has built himself a far more focussed aesthetic than you might expect from a 'web native'. These are long form constructions, masterfully wrought from the simplest of sonic elements - basically just synths, the odd sample and plenty of percussion - and festooned with idiosyncratic detail.

Nor is the album particularly lo-fi - 'lo-fi' being the key element in a lot of NNF output which is otherwise more or less a pastiche of past styles. Sometimes a legitimate and quietly compelling aesthetic strategy, a kind of mannered misinterpretation, it's also often a shield for the creative coward to hide behind - a shield which the scene's most promising figures are increasingly lowering (see Nite Jewel's forthcoming album for a brilliant example).

What is it then? Well, for a start, it's patently obvious from listening that this is music of severe limitation - much like the hardware house jams Martin-McCormick clearly admires. A little research (start here, of course) reveals that these tracks were built in Audacity, a free piece of software which is notoriously difficult to use for anything beyond the most primitive audio editing. There's an obvious comparison to be drawn with Burial, whose decade-defining albums were made using an antiquated copy of Sony Sound Forge. But where the rough grain of Burial's software is exposed in the negative space between the beats, Ital's sound is clean and relatively orderly.

His exertions instead reveal themselves at the macro level. There's a certain unwieldiness, a sense that structural changes occur at the rate of hands-on-machines. A deception perhaps, but one that doesn't feel intentional - more of a happy accident. And where Burial had his grit-infused kick'n'stick, Ital's sonic signature is the graunch of an FFT algorithm pushed to its limit - see the end of opener 'Doesn't Matter (If You Love Him)', where Gaga's stuttering words are slowed, magnified through time until their minute digital frames form an abrasive, scaly surface. To ears brought up on the aestheticisation of vinyl crackle and tape distortion, it's an ugly sound - a sonic artifact, yes, but the wrong kind of artifact.

Maybe, in a broader sense, that's what makes this record so unexpectedly difficult. It's warm, careworn analogue music trapped in a crisp digital skin - a victim of its creator's own (not inconsiderable) production chops. But then who can blame an artist for wanting to escape the ghetto of self-enforced bedroom ineptitude which seems to come with the chill/hip/hypnagogic territory?

'Doesn't Matter...' and 'First Wave' are the most overtly dancefloor-focussed (though still, paradoxically, not really dancefloor material at all). The latter, in particular, evokes the ghosts of house music past: that string sample wouldn't be so far away from jubilant Italo disco or Pepe Bradock-esque filter bliss were it not for the quixotic re-pitching and re-triggering, the brilliantly labyrinthine edits (check the breakdown at ~4:30). But all the ingenuity doesn't quite manage to compensate for a slight flatness in its basic materials.

Martin-McCormick really hits his stride in the album's second half. 'Israel' is where his percussive chops reach their zenith, but also where his unashamedly cosmic synth textures, present throughout, start to come into their own. Its vast, strafing washes of synth threaten to rip you off the track's surface, overloading the mix, crunching everything together into a satisfying mulch. At around 6:40, the drums peter out and those synths leap, ungainly but captivating - almost deafening - into the foreground. It's a beautiful moment, one which highlights the curious hybrid of convention and surprise that typifies the Ital sound. Gently euphoric closer 'Floridian Void' pushes things yet further into space - by the end, the beats are almost an irrelevance except for a thrunging kickdrum, completely obliterated by the movement of great big chords sliding over each other like tectonic plates.

So, call me a reactionary - or a snob jealously guarding his own meticulously staked out genre-territory - but Ital's music works best when it doesn't try to do dance. The tantalising proof is 'Privacy Settings' - the only track here not pinned down by a metronomic kickdrum, certainly the one with the least transcendental aspirations. It's also, in spite of being the shortest track on the album (and as a result feeling a little bit like an afterthought) the one that most successfully unearths the animal vitalism lurking in the machine - that autonomous life that seems to animate the dystopic burbles of the 303, say, or the febrile syncopations of a stripped-back hardware jam à la Appointment. Riddled with the clicks and pops of digital audio 'gone wrong', drifting clusters of pure sine tones - an oddly neutral sound - gradually disappear into the background drone, only to return as the baleful howling of a pack of wolves. If there's a better sonic metaphor for the power of machines, I can't think of it. It's a power that Ital would do well to heed.