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Jan St. Werner, "Spectric Acid (Fiepblatter Catalogue #5)"

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cover imageFew artists continually push their art into strange and unfamiliar new places quite like Jan St. Werner has been doing with his Fiepblatter series.  Some installments have certainly been better than others, yet St. Werner always brings a unique blend of bold conceptual vision, rigorous craftsmanship, and playful experimentation.  With Spectric Acid, he continues that noble trend in supremely vibrant fashion, taking inspiration from ceremonial West African rhythms to weave a dense tapestry of dynamic shifting pulses, dense synth buzz, and squalls of electronic chaos.  At its best, it sounds like a particularly visceral blend of exquisite sound art and an out-of-control train.

Thrill Jockey

St. Werner opens Spectric Acid with quite a powerful statement of intent, as "Acideous Welsh" is a sputtering eruption of squelching electronic chaos over a broken, yet pummeling groove…of sorts.  The "groove" never quite feels like anything other than a percussive attack though, despite the occasional appearance of a densely buzzing bass throb that ultimately proves to be just a tease.  More than anything, "Acideous Welsh" sounds like a ferocious, futuristic laser battle experienced from a trench near some of the heaviest artillery.  Oddly, it does not evolve much from its explosive beginning, as St. Werner seems more than happy to just unleash a strafing sci-fi cacophony.  The intensity remains roughly the same with the following “Victorian Trajectory,” which marries slowly flanging, massive slabs of synth drones with a wild percussion foundation that sounds like excerpts from a free-jazz drum solo that are constantly shifting in tempo and fading in and out of focus.  It is probably the most perfect distillation of what St. Werner is doing on this album, as the spacey drone thrum provides an immersive and relatively consistent headspace to get sucked into, giving me enough of a "song" to grasp onto as he unleashes skittering and clattering percussive mayhem all around me.  That is, more or less, the essential difference between Spectric Acid's best pieces and the rest of the album: a virtuosic show of force (albeit an inventively polyrhythic one) only makes a big impact once–there needs to be something deeper happening for it to hold up with repeat listens.

Fortunately, St.  Werner manages to hit the mark quite convincingly a few more times over the course of Spectric Acid.  My favorite piece is "Insuline" which sounds like the smoking wreckage of a great dub techno cut that somehow overheated and went haywire.  There are ghosts of chords and melodies floating above the ruins, but the foreground is all stuttering, overloaded bass throbs; squiggling and gnarled electronics; erratic kick drum stomps; and a viscerally unpleasant escalating whine.  It feels a lot like having a complete psychotic breakdown at a rave while pointedly ignoring a shrieking teapot, which is not a vibe that a hell of a lot of other artists would shoot for.  St. Werner perversely reprises that "teapot" aesthetic again with the shorter “Solo Winslet,” which feels like an even more sickly and jabbering version of the same material (perhaps the unexpected final death throes of its predecessor).  Elsewhere, "Gourd Skin Particles" takes a comparatively understated approach, taking the howling and stuttering electronic maelstrom down to a gently simmer, but compensating with an inventive textural leap into something that sounds like digitized and burbling viscous liquids.  For his final piece, "Bata Punch Bird," St. Werner creates something that sounds like the unholy coupling of a woodpecker and a sentient, yet mentally unstable modular synth.  That is certainly an unnerving and perplexing final act for an unnerving and perplexing album, but St. Werner cannot resist throwing in one last contrarian and wrong-footing surprise in the final seconds, completely abandoning all electronics for a cathartic flurry of trashcan lid percussion.

Discussing my perceived faults with Spectric Acid is something of a futile endeavor, as Jan St. Werner seems like an prodigiously talented iconoclast who does exactly what he wants to do and does it convincingly: there are certainly elements that I like and do not like, but I never feel like St. Werner made a misstep or fell short of hitting the mark he targeted.  Basically, I just need to accept that St. Werner is a deeply idiosyncratic artist who gleefully plunges into whatever rabbit hole fascinates him the most at a given time with no concern about whether there will be an audience for it.  Also, this is art, not entertainment.  As a fan of challenging music, I am delighted that he keeps finding new vistas to explore.  I would definitely like Spectric Acid more if St. Werner had used his explosively blurting electronics and unpredictably rhythmic experiments as a jumping-off point for deeper compositions with a bit more of a melodic or harmonic component, but that probably seemed like unnecessary window dressing to him: the experiments themselves are the point, not whether or not he can make them pretty.  As such, Spectric Acid is a fundamentally difficult and abstract album, but it compensates quite a bit through its bold vision, raw power, and sheer unpredictability.  More importantly, St. Werner is boldly and single-mindedly straining to redefine what is possible and push electronic music into uncharted new territory.  Other people can popularize these ideas when they catch up–for now, St. Werner is the one doing all the heavy lifting.  While it is a bit too prickly and obsessive to be one of my personal favorite albums of the year, it is very easy to imagine Spectric Acid being a significant influence upon some of my future favorites.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 01 October 2017 08:56  


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