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Best Audiohpile Music Of 2014 Blue Note AwardDiamond Version
EP1 Mute 12DVMUTE1(2012, Sept.)
EP2 Mute 12DVMUTE2 (2012, Nov.)
EP3 Mute 12DVMUTE3 (2013, Jan.)
EP4 Mute 12DVMUTE4 (2013, May) 
EP5 Mute 12DVMUTE1 (2013, July) 
Format: Vinyl (Five 180 gram EPs at 45 rpm) 

Review By Claude Lemaire

    

 

Optron

1. A device that consists of a light-emitter and a photodetector that are optically coupled and are placed in a common envelope.

2. A musical device comprising three fluorescent tubes commonly found in most Japanese homes and offices. As with an electric guitar, a pick up microphone is fitted into each of the tubes. By altering the voltage applied to the tubes, the lights pulsate and the microphones pick up the electromagnetic noise in accordance with the modulating light, before final sound amplification.

Combining the visual arts with experimental music is nothing new; performance artists such as Yoko Ono, Cabaret Voltaire, Laurie Anderson, Björk and by extension Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable - the multimedia roadshow which pioneered the fusion of art, innovative lighting with the original and experimental music of The Velvet Underground and Nico - have existed since the mid 1960s, albeit mostly under the radar or with limited appeal.

But Robin Thicke isn't the only one blurring the lines between the senses; more recently Diamond Version - the Berlin based duo project - has been making waves; filtered sine, square and saw tooth that is. Music and sound creators Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai better known by their alter egos Byetone and Alva Noto had been performing live solo sets in venues lending itself to experimental electronic music and the digital arts; places such as Sónar in Barcelona and Montreal's Elektra and MUTEK - two well respected international festival organizations founded around 1999 and held annually in late May and early June - now joined together under the banner EM15. After which they would sometimes perform encores combining their creative strengths in spontaneous and improvised tracks to the delight of their audience. Bender along with musician Frank Bretschneider had founded electronic music label Rastermusik while Nicolai was running sub label Noton; the fusion of both produced Raster Noton - a German record label and network combining art, design and sound. ­Since 2012 they have signed onto London's Mute records, made famous since the early 1980s by synthpop bands such as Fad Gadget, Yazoo and of course mega stars Depeche Mode and which continues to flourish with newer bands.

Visual and sound artist Atsuhiro Ito, a veteran of the Japanese improv scene as well as inventor of the aforementioned Optron has occasionally joined Diamond Version live on stage. He brings to the table a noisier counterpoint to the duo's minimalist dark-techno. Although a joint record collaboration has not to the best of my knowledge yet materialized, his sonic influence on this present five EP project seems a given.

Growing up in Chemnitz East Germany and under the Marxist-Leninist regime, Bender and Noto were quite constrained compared with their western counterparts in regard to diverse musical influences. Once the world’s leading textile producer, the city's vibe pulsated to the sounds of the Jacquard weaving machines controlled by some of the first mechanical computers - each punch card dictating the machine to a specific weaving pattern. So by witnessing the various stages of the digital evolution, they could relate these processes with digitalizing sounds. Cosmic electronic music pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze along with industrialist EinstürzendeNeubauten were a few of the German bands to pass through the strict state censorship that only started to ease up towards the mid-1980s.

These 'old school' musicians as well as the majority of 20th century 'melodic electronica' relies basically on subtractive synthesis whereby through the use of oscillators and frequency-phase filters, basic waveshapes containing many harmonics are tone-filtered as to modify the sound envelope thus creating new timbres. It is the basis of most analog synths - the Moog and its many siblings being one of the best known - as well as other digital synths and software emulators. Think of it as subtractive sculpture which consist of removing material from stone or wood from a given object. The sonic results can be magnificent of course but somewhat confined to a certain 'sound universe'.

What distinguishes the Diamond duo from the latter mindset is their exploration into a whole other universe more in sync with this century's technology that relies rather on granular synthesis. Similar to music sampling, granular divides the sample into smaller pieces between 1 and 50 ms of duration. These dissected sound snippets or grains extracted from the original envelope be it in the attack, body or decay are now free to be reconfigured in any possible manner - run forward, backward, time stretched, sped up-down, pitch or phase shifted, modulated, randomized; in other words, limited by one's imagination only. Using the same analogy as above, this may be compared with additive sculpture where the artist adds objects together rather than chiseling them out. In the visual art world Pointillism as practiced by Seurat and Signac provides another perspective with punctualism its main musical reciprocal.

Categorized as a mixture of techno, glitch, industrial and noise, their style has roots reaching back to the 1950s when French pioneers of musiqueconcrète and électroacoustique, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry of the Groupe de Recherche Musicales at the ORTF in Paris followed closely by Karlheinz Stockhausen's elektronischemusik in Cologne West Germany explored and established this new 'symphony of sounds'. These early electronic pieces were often tape-spliced together producing an almost aleatoric effect and would entail huge rooms of expensive equipment, placing it out of reach for most musicians, let alone the common soul. Since then affordable personal computers and sophisticated software have open up the realms of the world to any creative person who wishes to dabble in sound.

In an interview with Emil Schult of Kraftwerk fame, Bender and Nicolai explain the following: "using the computer allowed us to veer away from traditional compositional constraints. And the same thing went for visuals. The computer allowed us to compose music and to design visuals at the same time with the same machine. And the most important thing for us was that we could actually see the music. Composing became a visual thing on the screen thanks to the translation of sound into waveforms. For us, this was like a revolution".

They go on to say: "This to me shows how much growing up with abstract music - if not electronic music - has altered the way we perceive sound. What used to be perceived as noise we hear today as a tone or sound. Our listening habits seem to have changed completely. Our relationship with sound is culturally conditioned. In the Renaissance, our music wouldn’t have sounded like music at all...Kraftwerk were also inventors of sounds. And since we talked about sampling before, I want to stress that I always would support the idea that you can sample whatever you want, including an original sound by Kraftwerk. But you’re also somehow obliged to alter the sound to the point of unrecognizability. Otherwise it would be a rip-off"

And a bit of wise advice perhaps for those starting out: "today’s software encourages you to think in pre-set patterns. The whole idea of the loop resembles a dogma that you actively have to question as an artist...We recorded everything very carefully but when we tried to play it on our computer speakers, we couldn’t hear anything. Our compositions consisted only of very high tones and very low sub-basses. Nowadays, the speakers of laptops are much better, but back then… Anyhow, due to that experience we learned and put more effort into customizing our frequencies. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why our tracks stand out from the mainstream".

Extensive research in sound phenomena, exploiting both the extremes and minutiae from subsonic to ultrasonic on the auditory senses. By designing their own user interfaces and control panels for the live concerts, this ensures audience and music fan a more personalized sound.

The Bauhaus art school design philosophy renowned for its minimalist 'form follows function' is reflected not only in their music but even more so in their cover art where a simple diamond shaped icon in the bottom right side corner cleverly includes a 'D' and 'V' highlighted in white on the black background framed by a white perimeter. All five EP front covers share the same basic pattern and are identical save for the corresponding numerical next to the icon while the back sides persue the same minimalist theme showing only the track titles. The black inner sleeve consist of a semi-rigid paper with top angled corners and label cutout - classy but unfortunately not ideal for record protection so adding a 'smoother' surface type inner-sleeve is highly recommended. The 180 gram EPs were rigid, straight and shiny. All ten sides were flawlessly deep black with no scratches, blemishes, scuffing or press residues. The varying groove patterns were beautiful to contemplate under the light and inspired visual confidence; in one word: exemplary.

Bender and Nicolai handled the recording and production while engineer Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at D&M in Berlin was in charge of the mastering and lacquer cutting. Strangely he is credited - in tiny print on the back cover - on EP1 only but the 'Loop-o/D&M' inscribed in the matrix runout on all five EPs confirm that he largely deserves credit on every single one of them. A recording and mixing engineer since 1995, Lubich is best known for his work at Dubplates & Mastering from 1999 up until 2013. A quick search of Discogs' data base on the German facility shows over 3000 entries with 126 to his name - impressive figures considering that many of the titles are released on vinyl as well as other formats. Since then he has moved on to Calyx Mastering also situated in Berlin that offers Premium Pure Analog Mastering circumventing any digital conversion in addition to some serious tube outboard gear and even a modified EMT 948 with TSD 15 no less. Way to often we tend to forget in our small audiophile circle that there is life beyond the Ricker, Sax, Grundman, Gray and Hoffman mastering maestros. Believe me when I say LUPO is the real deal. Man can this guy cut! No mercy whatsoever for the cutter head. Each EP contains one to two tracks per side with a total of 7 to 11 minutes of modulation per side; pretty much approaching the safe recommended limit for a 45 rpm cut for this type of material before high end degradation sets in.

You want bass? You got it. You want to feel it deep down in your gut like in a club? Ditto - if your speakers are up to the task that is. It gave my 8-inchers a run for their money, taunting me to relieve them of their misery with my vintage Altec 416As sitting on the shelf but quite impressive nonetheless. This rarely heard subterranean bass was especially marked and appreciated on the very first cut of EP1 with the track "Technology at the Speed of Life"; talk about making a great first impression! But in order to keep equilibrium and avoid a boring rumble like a cheap car subwoofer, there is adequate energy in the high end of the frequency spectrum to keep things tidy and tight. Mind you this ain't no German vegan dish, there is plenty of meat and fat on the bone; if only Kraftwerk would have cultivated such a full bandwidth sound - next to this, Man Machine or Die Mensch· Maschine [Kling Klang, EMI Electrola - 1 C 058-32 843]sounds as emaciated as their wax-like robotic models project. On that subject, one particular track - "Live Young" taken from the B side of EP 4 - reminds me of "Nummern" from Computerwelt [Kling Klang, EMI Electrola - 1 C 064-46 311]. The incremental count from 1 to 100 has that similar machine-like voice pattern.

I will refrain by dissecting each and every track. Suffice to say that there is no filler-up material; some will prefer the slower heavier pounding ones while others will delight in the stellar staccato syncopation of the busier compositions. My sole minor musical reservation is that many of the tracks though constructive in nature are quite repetitive and an abrupt shift in pace or structure could cerebrally challenge the senses better. The sound quality throughout the duo's project is uniformely mind boggling. I am not exaggerating when I state that this is the best 'techno & co.' sound I have ever heard and felt on record; nitpicker as most of you know I am, I would not change a fraction of a dB anywhere. Part of the credit must go to Bender and Nicolai for exploring such a wide gamut in sound textures and their ongoing fascination with frequency extremes; but as well to Andreas Lubich for transcribing these huge contrast in modulation to wax that would sweat out any normal mastering engineer; kudos LUPO. The beautiful quality of these vinyl pressings are up there with the very best. No surface noise to distract on all ten sides; all too rare in this day and age of low QC.

To conclude, even if you do not consider yourself a fan of the breed, as an open-minded audiophile you owe it to yourself and your rig to get at least one if not all of the EPs from the Diamond Version project. Rumor has it there will be a sequel soon and I will be first in line to buy it.

 

 

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