© Jester Records 2002
“Less is more” could be the motto of Oslo based Knut Ruud, aka Upland. His first self titled album comprises of seven tracks of dark minimal glitch spanning just over half an hour. Ruud started working on his project toward the end of the nineties, having spent most of his formative years playing with his brother’s synthesizers, eventually releasing his first album on the ever excellent Norwegian label Jester.
Ruud, a worker in a day care centre for mentally disabled people by day, weaves intricate soundscapes together, hiding scarce melodies behind harsh beats and abrasive glitches, creating an intriguing soundtrack. Visceral and textural, this collection of arid tracks could deter the more open-minded listener wouldn’t it be for the intrinsic beauty of the complete work. Working as a little symphony, Ruud’s compositions are carefully articulated around meticulous rhythmic architectures and organic sonic structures embedded within each other. The album opens with a two-minute rattle-like drone slowly evolving into a shredded rhythmic pattern, before being swallowed by the metallic convulsions of the following piece. Twin Gap is as syncopated and scarce, but provides a more consistent base for a shy melody to develop in the background. Built around a complex and turbulent rhythmic backbone, the more vibrant ‘Nd Falling offers some of the more evocative and upfront moments of the album. Rudd maintains his mechanical sculpture going for a while before taking it apart entirely toward the end, leaving the blank noises on Root to take control of the sonic landscape and expand freely as they effortlessly morph from aquatic to earthy elements. The remaining three tracks present a rather surprisingly more conventional form, as if Ruud was reminding the listener of the human factor controlling the sonic manipulations exhibited here. The almost chirpy Block and Marshgate contrast with the rest of the album by introducing almost linear beats, allowing fully-formed melodic shapes to replace the more abstract constrictions heard previously.
Following a trend currently pushing the boundaries of electronic music beyond recognisable musical forms, Ruud retains the emotional impact of his music by preventing his compositions from veering into meaningless abstraction. Evoking the skeletal experimentations heard on some of Autechre’s more recent work, this album is nothing less than an impressive debut.
At this point, my expectations for a Jester disc are probably unreasonably high, but that’s the price you pay for maintaining a certain standard of excellence… and besides, they haven’t disappointed yet. Which brings us to their latest offering, the debut disc by Upland (actually Knut Ruud of Oslo, Norway) whose aesthetic lies in “projecting dense structures of sound from places visited in dreams, worlds mulded by the forces of guided chaos and skewed logic.” This disc falls squarely into the category of Techno Albums I Actually Like, mainly because it’s a techno album that systematically violates all the rules of techno. It’s also incredibly detail-oriented (and, like everything else on Jester, exceptionally well-recorded) and multi-layered — when they say “dense structures” they aren’t kidding — which essentially transforms it into a math/prog-rock album cleverly pretending to be a techno album. (Sort of like Ulver’s PERDITION CITY, where they spent a great deal of time being a black-metal band playing trip-hop.) It’s also a noise album in many places, which always merits great approval.
At the same time, there’s a creeping minimalism at work here (and on Upland’s website, which accurately reflects the album’s strengths), always a nice thing. The songs here aren’t so much actual songs in the traditional sense as they are painstaking constructions of beats, noise, and vaguely musical content assembled into shifting structures of sound. Sometimes the complex sound constructions are introduced or bridged by giant washes of ambient sound (as at the beginning of “root”), and sometimes the sounds are impossible to identify, but the chaotic sounds often add up into something genuinely brilliant (such as the clipped ticking and perfectly-timed noises of “flex”). Ruud is also fond of extreme panning, with beats hopping back and forth across the speakers, an effect that’s most noticeable (and somewhat disorienting, probably intentionally so) on “flex.” In “block,” the beats themselves are often buried in siren-like wails and noises dropping in from different directions, with the effect of sounding like a standard techno album being dissected by a hungry mechanical engine. This is definitely true of the closing track “marshgate,” where a standard-issue tubby-techno sound is relentlessly overwhelmed by a growing lattice of overlaid beats, mechanical noises, and melodic sounds of unknown origin.
One of the best things about this disc is that it doesn’t wear out its welcome — at a little over 32 minutes, it manages to cover a lot of sonic ground in a short time, and the individual songs have enough room to work up a good head of steam and get fairly convoluted, but they don’t go on endlessly to the point of boredom (a sore point with a lot of techno albums). Interesting stuff, housed in a beautiful and intensely minimalist package (so minimalist, in fact, that there is absolutely no information outside of the title and track listings; for all that stuff you have to visit the Upland site). More proof that from Jester come only good things.
I’ve often likened music to films. For example: the borderline pretentious yet lovable elements to a Todd Solondz film (Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse) parallels that of The Flaming Lips; the minimalist qualities and historical importance in Stanley Kubrick films (Eyes Wide Shut, 2001: A Space Odyssey) are in the vein of composer Steve Reich; and the esoteric yet accessible nature of David Lynch films (Mullholland Drive, Blue Velvet) can be linked to Sonic Youth. Then, of course, there are the obvious ones: drama (Celine Deon), comedy (Weird Al), thriller (Michael Jackson), sci-fi (Pink Floyd), avant-garde (John Cage), porn (Britney Spears), action (Limp Bizkit), etc.
In contrast, there are a wealth of differences between music and films. The Flaming Lips are much more out-of-this-world when compared to Todd Solondz; Steve Reich used a different kind of minimalism than Kubrick; and Sonic Youth are not nearly as troubling as David Lynch. But if any group is worthy of the horror movie parallel, it’s Upland. Upland’s eponymous album is fudge-packed with enough creeping noises and mysterious thuds that you’ll want to listen with lights on and door locked. Trying to describe the sounds will make me feel like I’m in 4th grade again, so I’ll spare you the “alien” and “weird” adjectives. But just know this: the sounds on Upland are so freakishly tangible that you’ll feel as if something is tapping you from behind.
Heaps of electro-acoustic artists have tried combining the organic with the inorganic, and loads of strictly electronic artists have failed to provide any palpable human emotion within its framework. But Upland relinquishes the safety-net of organic instruments and provides an authentic emotion with electronics alone. Though it won’t give you a euphoric balloon in the middle of your belly, it will scare the bejesus out of you, taking it one step further than the strict mental candy of similar artists of its kind.
However, being violent and scary is where the comparisons to a horror movie ends. Unlike most horror movies, Upland is neither clich’d or a pastiche, and you can forget about the big in-your-face jugs and nonsensical plotlines: The album is unique and original. Although it’s neither groundbreaking nor revolutionary, it provides yet another fresh perspective on how to use the computer as an instrument, sounding like a more tasteful version of Autechre.
It seems the trouble with many electronic artists these days is their lack of variety, many rely on repetition and overall mood to conjure reactions. But Upland procures reactions based on its beautiful variations. The songs jump from rhythmic (“Block”) to free-form (“Flex”), from minimal (“Root”) to complex (“Marshgate”)– but don’t think for a minute that the overall theme is sacrificed. The approach may be different, but the ambience is similar throughout, creating one of the most cohesive electronic albums I’ve experienced in a long time. Warning: Don’t listen alone.
I never really understood the term ‘micro-sound,’ but if it’s to be applied anywhere, it should be here. There’s space between Upland’s soft clicks. But there’s also melody embedded within the rhythms. On ‘Flex,’ panning clatterings lead right into ‘Twin Gap,’ its silences almost as interesting as its percussion and bass. ‘Root’ is more ephemeral, with echoey swoops that tend to be over-used these days. Thankfully ‘Block’ returns to the clicking rhythms and deep bass Upland’s best at. Finally, ‘Marshgate’ offers beautiful bass note changes, timed to make best use of busy, non-repetitive beats.
Despite the minor chords and alien ticks, there’s something pleasingly light about this album. While many clicks-and-cuts-style releases are overly complex, this LP is refreshingly pure.
Upland is the pseudonym of one Knut Andreas Ruud, and after only a few tracks of this shorter release, it’s easy to hear different groups and influences peeking through. Actually, one group comes to mind more than anyone else, and if you’re a fan of Autechre and their fractured soundscapes, you’d probably best get out and pick this up straightaway, as Booth and Brown and Ruud are creating music along the same somewhat damaged and deconstucted paths.
In fact, had someone thrown this release in my CD player and skipped to track number 2 (titled “Twin Gap”) and told me to name the release and artist that it was from, I honestly would have said something like “Peel Session 3 by Autechre.” Of course, that doesn’t exist, and while some artists hate to be compared to other artists, it’s nearly inescapable here. The track shudders and jerks along with a completely off-kilter rhythm, flits of electronic noise clicking along while warm rushes pile on in the background. “-nd Falling” again layers sputtering, chopped-up beats and oddly shimmering electronic tones over one another, coming together in what seems like almost random patterns, until you realize that’s all part of the plan. It’s beauty in chaos, and while it sounds like a beehive full of mechanical bees, there’s a slight method to the madness that will keep some listeners in tune.
The whole album isn’t composed of head-jerking cut-ups, though, and the minimal ambience of “Root” and speedy rumbling of “Carrier Down” (which marries a bastardized two-step low-end married to a melodic ambient glitch). The closing track of “Marshgate” is the epic of the release, opening with another frantic rhythym before piling on mechanical breathing noises and more of those warm melodic tones as the skittering threatens to go haywire. After fading out only a couple minutes in, there’s a couple minutes of dead quiet before a thick, trashed-out schizo (complete with distorted vocals) electronic track comes in to complete the release.
In all, it adds up to just over a half hour of music, and while there are some different styles that the release goes through, it definitely keeps a similar mood. Like the artwork of the release in which a pattern of perfect circles are visually degraded (like graffiti left on a wall for ages) and juxtapozed against a variety of stark backgrounds, the music has a feel of industrial and electronic decay. Patterns break down and sometimes re-emerge while sometimes your mind tries to force order on the chaos. Not exactly easy listening, but Autechre (yes, them again) will eat it up.
Upland is Norwegian. Upland is glitchy IDM. Upland is moody, synth-backed soundscape. Upland is icy and superficially unyielding. Upland is a short album that encompasses all of the previous statements. Or that’s the easiest way to broach the subject.
Spare, building structures next to those erected by other stark, beat-free pioneers, Upland relies more upon tone and mood than hysterically broken beats and fractured shards of digitization. Sure, there’s some of that, but it’s color and texture rather than a driving force. Anchoring tones and a sometimes atypical manifestation of typical timekeeping place Upland outside the realm of pure experimentation, but that’s not to say that Knut Ruud’s compositions are everyday fare. While there is a sense of unity through constant tone and implementation, each track explores a different landscape: the rapid-click monologue of “Flex”, the distressing timestretched pitch-blends of “And Falling” and the more hesitant “Carrier Down”. The general sense is that each track has a core idea, and that the core has been torn down and rebuilt along the way according to the whims of rampant exploratory spirit. That’s refreshing, especially in a scene often dominated by a mindset that worships electronic destruction in a way that recalls a certain story about a naked emperor…