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The Lead Review

A Better Tomorrow: Caterina Barbieri's Ecstatic Computation
Joseph Burnett , May 2nd, 2019 08:06

The latest from Italian composer Caterina Barbieri reignites electronic music's utopian spark, finds Joseph Burnett

Readers of a certain age might remember a computer game called Omikron: The Nomad Soul, which caused something of a stir upon release, mainly because it featured original songs by David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels (who also appeared in the game, in pixelated form). Omikron was over-ambitious for the time but, Thin White Duke aside, it did have a certain appeal to the teenage me because the futuristic world it created seemed so outlandish, yet somehow real. With its seemingly endless interactive environment to explore (which now seems pitifully small in comparison to today’s games), Omikron offered up a vision of times to come which, if you ignored the threat of soul-stealing demons, was exotic, modern, and beguiling. Somewhere you hoped might show a way forwards for this reality.

Beyond Bowie and Gabrels’ rock-ish soundtrack to Omikron, imagining the future has long been a staple of electronic production. But the blissful optimism that characterised that game or the early pioneers of what became known as ambient and new age has slowly faded away, replaced by more turbulent sounds that reflect our increasingly troubled age. Gone is the ecstatic mediation music of Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence or the modernist sound worlds of Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports or the sprawling sci-fi vistas of Klaus Schulze and Ashra. Your average forward-facing ambient release of any note these days is fitful even at its most spaced out.

On the more rhythmic front, the post-racial utopia envisioned by Drexciya has made way for the haunted cityscapes of dubstep or for house’s more materialist dancefloor-centric thrust. Some of the most notable electronic releases of 2019 carry an undercurrent of disquiet, from the militaristic subtext on Silk Road Assassins’ State of Ruin to the shattered psychedelia of Lexachast by Amnesia Scanner and Bill Kouligas via the often (beautifully) oppressive abstractions of Zaliva-D, Helm, and Rian Treanor.

But a vision of a resplendent tomorrow shimmers into focus in the form of Ecstatic Computation, the fourth album by Italian composer Caterina Barbieri. With its title alone Ecstatic Computation comes across as a celebration of the boundless possibilities of technology. The machines of Barbieri’s world are seductive and across six tracks and under 40 minutes, she throws herself into exploring this potential. Opener ‘Fantas’ spans ten minutes of oscillating sequencers, their rhythmic pulsations echoing dance music and throwing down a canvas for Barbieri to send out cascades of synthesizer melodies. There is a clear hint of the Klaus Schulze of Timewind or Moondawn, with wide and welcoming spaces into which the synths pierce like beams of light flowing from stained-glass windows into a cathedral. At times this combination of rhythm and atmosphere conjures memories of the headiness of early new age; at others something more akin to prog rock. ‘Fantas’ is big, bold, romantic, and somewhat spectacular, a celebration of the synthetic drone at its most humane and tactile.

The nod to sensuality and romance evoked by a title like Ecstatic Computation finds an echo in the track names: ‘Spine of Desire’, ‘Closest approach to your Orbit’, and ‘Pinnacles of You’ hint at seduction and sensuality but could also just be odes to the machines that Barbieri clearly adores, and the way they interact with the human psyche. ‘Spine of Desire’ builds and builds over ninety seconds, an unstoppable crescendo that leaves the listener gasping for more. Disquieting synth noise opens ‘Closest approach to your Orbit’ but is quickly subsumed by warm pads and melodies that teasingly run the boundary between organic and artificial. On ‘Arrows of Time’ a ghostly choir of female voices soars over stunted harpsichord chords, their beatific groan tending towards the spiritual.

The future world Barbieri creates is certainly warm and inviting, but it’s also laden with mystery and abstraction. Even in its most unsettling moments, such as the silent gaps that punctuate the synth notes on closer ‘Bow of Perception’, Ecstatic Computation retains a sense of expanding horizons and joyful experiments.

If its closest cousin is the sci-fi drone of Gerald Donald’s post-Drexciya project Dopplereffekt, Ecstatic Computation is a realm where machines and humans are locked in a delirious dance to their mutual delight and a potential tomorrow defined by Trump, Brexit, and climate change seems like a nightmare you’re allowed to wake up from.

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