Through its decay, electronic music is becoming self-conscious of its increasing difficulty of continuing as a critical art. The returning-to-the-roots syndrome, prominent in everything from Autechre’s Oversteps that revisits acid techno, to Oneohtrix Point Never who returns to early 80’s synthscapes, not to mention the countless excavations of mid-century electronic music over the past decade, finds a natural home in the research of history, which new music draws it newness from through difference. Florian Hecker exhumes David Tudor and Acid techno, only to edge forward synthesis in the realm of psychoacoustics, which also has its history in Maryanne Amacher’s third-ear music. On the surface, these varied examples couldn’t have less in common stylistically. But style in recent electronic music achieves its individuation through crisis. Historical redemption of electronic music has become at least in part a commonality that is uncritical in position, as electronic musicians bond today over the demise of what once put them together. That is, electronic music is a shadow of what it once used to be, and hoped to be, and finding solace in the shadow has become occasion for further non-conceptual experimentation. This is only natural for music, the least representational of the arts, which electronic music exaggerates, sometimes like a grotesque caricature of abstraction. Mark Fell’s uniquely digital, highly engineering-centric art is one exaggerated argument for what he thinks electronic music should aspire to.
Aesthetically, Mark Fell exploits a detail that can be found in Autechre’s oeuvre – the differences and similarities between tone and percussion. Fell uses what sounds like a monochromatic pitch in the percussion the first 5 tracks – The Occultation Of 3C 273 – rely on, but surgical listening discerns that it might be polychromatic. A rapid percussive pattern comprised of basic synthetic waves varies slightly through its modulated arpeggiation, and each percussive attack that subtly shifts is a different tone as opposed to simply noise, as it is in the natural world. This separation from the natural world has also been played with by Fell’s geeky computer music pun on a previous album – Attack on Silence. Percussive attack and tone color seem designed for unity from the ground-up, maybe a continuation of instruments like marimbas or thumb pianos. In a sense, Fell’s work could be thought of as the impossibility of new instrumentation via computer sound design, but rather abstractions of old instruments, whether conscious or not. Moreover, what UL8 exposes is a propensity to collapse the complexity of the natural world to a single point – why is it not of interest to exploit the differences between percussive noise and tonality by putting them into compositional tension? The loss of this tension is assumed by Fell from the start, who uses sound synthesis to avoid what is perceived as archaic in tensed composition, but could actually be advanced by technology instead of collapsed. But the listening, which is immersed in pure synthesis, sounds non-representational and acute nonetheless. The listener is faced with a challenge of gleaning the character of minute sonic change, partially because Fell’s tempo falls on the threshold of what can be perceived without exploiting it.
Vortex Studies (tracks 6-12) features monochrome, rapid-fire bass-pulse blasts amidst grainy tones that are nearly noise. Dense clouds of high frequency square-wave gradations repeat overtop of a relentless kickdrum tied to no bass tone. Part three of the album is a nod to Hecker’s recent Acid in The Style of David Tudor, called aptly, Acids in the Style of Rian Treanor. These are the most dynamic of UL8; the bass pulse kicks vary in tonality, almost arpeggiated, with filters perhaps placed on a complicated field of higher pitched arpeggiations or non-arpeggiations, the listener can’t tell. Each entire piece is universally colored by varying tonality, with rapidly sweeping filters. As everywhere else on the album, the percussion is still beating out an irregular geometric rhythm that speeds up and slows down not through the rigid matrices of drum machines, but through the engineering of more fluid dynamics that occasionally make the bass drum accelerate into tone. Track 16 features a descending, stepping wave that runs alongside the bass. The Acids section of the album has the most temporal dynamism, as the patterns ebb and flow erratically, not following a reductive matrix. The erratic quality is not haphazard or random either, but aesthetically intuited – it takes an immersion in the material laid out to make something sound haphazard that is overdetermined and calculated.
Considering UL8 is a basic exercise of synthetic engineering, not exactly a new idea, Fell is still able to extract alien sounds. In order to do so, he mimes an ideal of the electronic musician, now almost entirely mythologized, as being a calculating engineer. Such lengths are enacted because one major criteria of judgment for experimental music is in tone-colors and the generation of new sounds. Another way to look at UL8 is as exposition for this criteria of judgment – Fell lays bare the synthesis of this criteria as a way of exposing it.