This latest album from Markus Popp marks yet another intriguing stylistic detour for his endlessly shapeshifting Oval project, as he delves into "an omnipresent and yet oft ill-defined, even maligned area of music and art–the romantic." The idea for this album first began as a multimedia collaboration with digital artist Robert Seidel intended for the grand opening of Frankfurt's German Romantic Museum, but the endeavor soon evolved and expanded beyond the original purpose, as the two artists "sought a more expansive definition of 'romantic,' extending outward from the museum's comprehensive survey of the 19th-century epoch in art." That said, I suspect only Popp knows how influences from literature, architecture, and visual art helped shape the album, as my ears can only process the final destination and not the journey. In the case of Romantiq, that destination feels like a series of brief vignettes/miniatures assembled from period instrumentation and filtered through Popp's fragmented and idiosyncratic vision. Given that this is an Oval album, of course, very few of the 19th-century sounds are instantly recognizable as such (aside from some occasional piano), but Popp's kaleidoscopic and deconstructed homage to the past is a characteristically compelling and intriguingly unique outlier in the Oval canon (and it is often a textural marvel as well).
The album's description promises a perfume-like experience ("rich scents flooding the senses before evaporating on the breeze"), which feels weirdly apt, as most of the pieces feel like a fleeting impression of something beautiful rather than an intentionally substantial experience (though the album itself is a substantial whole). That approach makes sense given the album's origins as just one part of a larger installation, yet these pieces do not feel like they are missing anything—they simply feel purposely ephemeral, elusive, and impressionistic. In more concrete terms, many of the pieces sound like a music box made of crystal that has been modified to make its simple melodies unpredictably stammer, smear, and flicker. While that is an admittedly cool baseline aesthetic, the stronger pieces on the album tend to be the ones that enhance that foundation with some kind of inspired addition. For example, the opening "Zauberwort" features both a trombone and a recording of an opera singer unrecognizably "atomized into smoke trails."
To my ears, the album's centerpiece is the wonderfully phantasmagoric "Okno," which feels like a smeared and convulsive orchestral loop dueting with a glass vibraphone, but that description fails to do it justice (it more accurately lies somewhere between "violently remixed film score" and "chopped and screwed rendition of 'Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy'"). The following "Touha" is quite wonderful as well though, as it approximates a crystalline and psych-damaged variation on Aphex Twin's Drukqs-era computer-controlled piano pieces. Elsewhere, "Cresta" and "Amethyst" combine for another strong one-two punch, as Popp beautifully elevates his "crystal music box" vision with psychotropic tendrils and a host of burbling, gurgling, and smeared electronic sounds.
Admittedly, there are also a couple of more traditionally piano-centric pieces that do not quite connect with me, but this is otherwise a solid and playfully anachronistic (if modest) album that reaffirms my Oval fandom yet again. Obviously, some Oval releases make a much deeper impact on me than others, yet the recurring theme in Markus Popp's career continues to be one of bold and continual reinvention. While it has been roughly three decades since he first exploded onto the scene with his groundbreaking "skipping CD" innovations, he continues to focus his formidable production skills on bending and stretching the boundaries of electronic composition and seems to have an almost pathological aversion to ever repeating himself or taking an expected path. While plenty of artists give fans exactly what they want, Popp is one of the rare artists who is far more interested in nudging adventurous listeners towards sounds and ideas that transcend the familiar (like a perfume-esque and partially architecture-inspired fantasia of deconstructed 19th-century romanticism, for example).