Oval – Oh (Thrill Jockey) 12″
It’s been about a decade since we last heard from Markus “Oval” Popp. During said decade, glitch – the style of abstract digital electronica Oval basically invented during the mid ’90s – has had time to go in and out of fashion a couple of times. Popp, meanwhile, has been suffering the effects of his highly analytical approach to music making – total creative deadlock.
To clear his writer’s block, Popp has moved from a methodology focused on questioning everything to one based on simply reversing everything. The approach he takes on Oh is rather reminiscent of that Seinfeld episode where George decides to start doing the opposite of everything he would normally do. In Popp’s case, this means swapping custom-built software for cheap commercial plug-ins and abandoning samples of skipping CDs in favour of actually playing acoustic and software instruments – drums, even!
The result is an EP that packs 15 tracks onto two sides of (white) vinyl. The four tracks on side A are relatively lengthy and by far the most musically conventional material ever released under the Oval banner. Side B features much shorter, more abstract pieces. Initially, both sides seem likely to frustrate long-time Oval fans – with the tracks being either too lightweight or too brief to be truly satisfying. However, once prejudices are suppressed and expectations put aside, this turns out to be a highly satisfying release.
While, Popp may have reversed his approach, his sonic signature is immediately recognizable. In fact, “Hey” (MP3 removed because it had been recorded from the vinyl at the wrong speed!!!) actually opens the EP with some reassuringly familiar-sounding filtered glitches. Even as the track progresses into something far more rhythmically and melodically steady than the classic Oval material, Popp’s authorial presence is strongly but subtly asserted. It’s something about the way he gently disrupts and distresses sound to create music that is decorative and confounding in equal measure.
The great dark secret of Popp’s career has been that, while he has always concerned himself with asking difficult questions about digital technology and musical practice, he has also consistently displayed a real talent for using digital technology to make quite straightforwardly beautiful music. Now, with what is by far the most straightforwardly beautiful music he has ever given us, Popp is asking some pretty intriguing things about what it means to have a “voice” in music and how musical technology and critical theory can either intensify or obfuscate raw talent.
Oh seems to have gone out of print already. If you see a copy, buy it!