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Linear S Decoded Albert Freeman , August 19th, 2014 15:02

While many of the recent mystery figures in techno have slowly let their identities be known, the recalcitrant obscurity of Avian duo SHXCXCHCXSH has done no favours to either eager journalists or to their quickly increasing fan following. The genre has always had a soft spot for anonymity since its initial explosion in Detroit and the endless aliases spun off by many of its earliest contributors. However, in a contemporary era of information saturation and a strong trend towards producers using their given birth names as their artistic names, the persistence of this practice has drawn its fair share of commentary, and the ability to pull off the ruse alone is often enough to arouse a certain amount of interest. Following the rise of Sandwell District and a return to more strictly functional, harder techno, intentional anonymity made a noticeable comeback, but after initially-mysterious operators like Skudge and various numbered Frozen Border and Horizontal Ground producers slowly let the secret out, it seemed the trend was again tapering back.

Even in the case of the pseudonym-obsessed Avian label, who had formerly insisted on anonymous releases, the eventual revelation of Truss and Sigha being the artists behind MPIA3 and A Vision Of Love respectively, as well as the rather open secret concerning the identity of Shifted, served to indicate that, although quite faddish a few years before, the idea was now waning. A glut of white-label techno had made what was once novel into a gimmick, and the intent to place the focus more on the music itself had been subverted into an obsessive quest for artist identities. SHXCXCHCXSH at first seemed to fit squarely into this trend, with early releases that fell on the more experimental end of functional techno and a typically opaque image, but as time has worn on, it has been the music itself that separated them from the pack, more so than their rare robed public appearances and insistence on shrouding their identities. Being the most experimental producers on Avian is itself no small feat, and their debut album Strgths separated them from the label's other output and even from their own previous 12"s by shifting the focus towards evolving, thickly layered sounds rather than the blackened pounding the imprint made its name with.

Even compared to their debut LP, Linear S Decoded is a marked change in direction and the furthest the artist or label has ever come from the gloomy basement atmosphere that still defines much of its output. The preceding single VVVLLLLVVV's title track gave the first indications a shift was in motion, but it still continued the nonsensical track titles they had been using until that point and was filled out with two searing floor tracks. The new album still has plenty of murk and shadowy atmospheres throughout, but it is tempered with some of the first melodies ever seen on any Avian record and frequent moments of respite and beauty, again rare both on the label and the artists' back catalogue. If the duo had previously applied their detailed grasp of layers and composition to darkly narrative tracks, here they allow the first signs of brightness in with startling results.

It's not to say this is a dramatic reversal of their previous aesthetic, which tended to expertly stack and blend textures and sound into dense collages with strong roots both in 1990s hard techno and modern sound manipulation. At its core, their process remains mostly unaltered, but they've applied it to a different sound palette. Indeed, the overall tone of much of Linear S Decoded falls somewhere between optimistic and ominous. The tempestuous 'Elocution' or the queasy 'Helical Dialog' that follows it, both of which find themselves awash in cavernous, distorted bass and heavy doses of distorted mid-range tones, stand out for impact without swaying the balance. Especially the latter refuses to settle down and plays like a seasick narrative exercise in sound manipulation, darkly psychedelic and intensely claustrophobic and with the rhythmic framework taking a decided back seat to noise sculpting.

A track like album midpoint 'The Under Shore', with its floating, hazily processed pads, intricate, drum & bass-influenced rhythms, and intensive sample processing shows a virtuosity of production that places it far past what most of the duo's contemporaries are capable of. Indeed, throughout the thirteen tracks, straight techno rhythms are in decidedly short supply, with only five of them conforming to something resembling a strict 4/4 pulse and the rest trading in different kinds of deconstructed breakbeats and rhythmic stumbles that make interpreting the music's intentions difficult. There's also a clear element of cheek in many of the track titles, which for the first time are interpretable but hardly transparent. 'A Sunny Day In Ostrogothia' pokes fun at the duos supposed Swedish roots, and its simple construction of a thudding techno beat and scraping metallic sounds is one of the more conventional efforts here. 'This Hmming Raverie' seems similarly sarcastic, again employing a straight 4/4 against manipulated sounds of running water and a combination of stabs and hanging, filtered pads, while 'Monolithic Conclusion' mockingly references its own purpose as the finishing piece, but serious or not it has some of the record's most strikingly pretty melodic arrangements.

The album title itself may further be interpreted as some kind of sly joke on their own efforts to obscure their identities and a reference to the long held mystery of the still-undeciphered Linear A script with the character "S" substituted as an obvious self-reference. They're not kidding with the music at all though, and even if there is an implied element of humour both in tone and the titles, this kind of sophisticated processing of sounds and fusing of techno, IDM, and breakbeat influences with carefully camouflaged rave ideas has parallels in the work of their contemporaries in the UK and in Germany but sounds simultaneously alien and futuristic. It's quite a jump from their older material, which at times seemed to operate at cross purposes by applying intensive processing to structures that were often not much more than functional techno tracks. On Linear S Decoded, SHXCXCHCXSH successfully tethers their high-level sound sculpting to building, narrative tracks full of emotive gesture, in the process bringing out complexities in their music that were only suggested before.