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Peder Mannerfelt
The Swedish Congo Record Albert Freeman , May 21st, 2015 13:09

The recent expansion of club music towards experimental and ambient territory has, for better or worse, allowed all manner of formerly peripheral artists into the spotlight. Of those on the recent upswing, few fall quite so far afield as Peder Mannerfelt. His is hardly a new name, having appeared consistently as half of Roll The Dice since 2007, producing unclassifiable drone-oriented electronic music for the well-regarded Leaf and Digitalis labels. On his own, he was known previously mostly as The Subliminal Kid on a variety of mostly-obscure techno labels: Ann Aimee holds the greatest current sway but was essentially unknown in 2008 when he appeared, and the others remain quite low-key indeed. His previous techno productions were interesting if slight in impact, and his post-2010 work, which emerged finally under his own name on Paul Purgas' low-key We Can Elude Control imprint, showed significant shifts in complexity and direction towards more formless, experimental ideas.

If the web of connections sounds confusing, what they mostly have in common is the suggestion of an artist who is working ahead of the curve. In a curious shift, while his music mostly can hardly be called accessible, Peder Mannerfelt has quite suddenly found a bit of a spotlight shining upon him. Close scrutiny shows Mannerfelt to be both a nonconformist and somewhat of a chameleon, able to adapt his style into more rigid forms when needed but also able to work nearly entirely without form, with the unifying factor being his expert handling of electronic textures. His most recent EP for Avian turned back towards straightforward techno, albeit still with a searching edge, and his previous full length, a 2014 effort for Digitalis, was Roll The Dice-esque drone and ambient music. With the launch of his eponymous imprint and the pair of impressive EPs released there, Mannerfelt has again taken another step into the wilderness, and he continues to venture outwards with The Swedish Congo Record, an often-baffling concept album for Yves De Mey and Peter Van Hoesen's consistently intriguing Archives Intérieures label.

It certainly takes courage to do what Mannerfelt is attempting here, and it is impossible to discuss the work at any length without a synopsis of the subtext which Mannerfelt is using. Based on a rare recording of traditional Congolese music from 1950, the producer has sought to offer his own original interpretation of the source material. Like the African music that forms its basis, the album is composed of a series of related fragments and even shares some of the titles, but rather than sampling he has chosen to fully electronically recreate and expand the source material, adding segments of his own invention, re-ordering others, and making changes as he sees fit. The result is a complex combination of tribute and commentary on both the recordings and the destructive practices that they resulted from. Without hearing the originals, it's impossible to know how literal his interpretations are, but it's a safe bet Mannerfelt is not sticking too closely to his source material.

Given the long history of sampling in electronic music, borrowings from African music are nothing new, and in fact even authentic contemporary African sounds have begun to gain sway in electronic circles, as witnessed by many releases on Honest Jons and groups like Konono No.1. Of the Western artists working in this area, Burnt Friedman and Shackleton are the most known, but in their cases the music is thoroughly derived and removed from African forms. Mark Ernestus' series of African releases hedges closer to traditional music, but his dub interpretations remain recognisable in context of his other work and as Western music. The first listen to The Swedish Congo Record is a disorienting experience and one that remains so even after many plays. Mannerfelt's earnest and quite accurate attempts at recreating Congolese hand drumming sit uneasily besides more obviously synthesised textures that put the pieces out of place and time. It recalls a hypothetical future that was never allowed to happen, one in which African music remained frozen in time and free of Western influences but discovered contemporary technology.

The record is at its most interesting when the verisimilitude is at its least, although close listening to the 808-esque drums easily shows them to be distant cousins of the hand drums he's imitating. 'Elephant Feast' or 'Flagellation', which rub these kind of ideas against noisier and purely electronic elements, are fascinating both for the ways in which they approach his source material and the ways in which he works in details obviously impossible in the originals. 'Circumcision Dance' and 'Circumcision Atmosphere' are both works of pure invention and some of the more disturbing pieces here, with the clash between mood and subject matter revealing Mannerfelt's understated commentary that runs through the album. 'The Circumcision Bird', a cartoonishly mocking electronic bird call repeated over drones and hums, is nearly a laugh-out-loud moment, but taken against the overall darkened atmosphere it serves to brighten the mood only slightly. In contrast to the original album, which grouped related pieces in sequence, the producer has intentionally jumbled the tracks and forced discontinuity, with commonly jarring transitions and recurring fragments of rhythm or melody emerging unexpectedly in half-remembered haze.

For someone who is, as Mannerfelt himself is, an avid listener of African music, there are many layers playing against each other here, and the producer has taken his time to obscure meanings even further and create a deliberately challenging work. He highlights a failure created by superimposed modern systems clashing with previously existing cultural threads, creating chaotic conditions where the individual components are intertwined and difficult to separate. The album itself is no failure however: difficult as it may be, at times maddening and requiring many listens to unwrap its more hidden ideas, The Swedish Congo Record stands as a work of remarkable originality and execution. It's certainly the most outward bound yet for an artist whose work is presently breaking away from his own past and his contemporaries into bravely undiscovered territory.