Marcus Schmickler: Palace Of Marvels (Queered Pitch) (Editions Mego)
Marcus Schmickler, the avant-garde composer/producer with more than a handful of difficult-listening releases under his belt along with several post-rock laptop albums as Pluramon, offers up another decidedly strange excursion into the fringes of computer music. The entirety of Palace of Marvels is based on Shepard-tone theory, a concept explored by Alan Shepard in the 60s, in which a pattern of notes appears to be ascending or descending but simultaneously seems to not change. And so in some ways many of the pieces on Palace Of Marvels are somewhat academic, in a way that’s even more prescribed than his previously severe atonal output under his own name. The first impression may be similar to that of Florian Hecker’s more severe computer music arrangements, with often crude and shrill synthesis sounds that spiral and cascade and loop to exercise Shepard-tone theory in extremis. Usually for me this is something enjoyed more in theory than in practice, but there’s something deep down inside these pieces that is a kind of infectious anti-funk. The use of cyclical sound and patterns is not so far off the mark from minimalist composers or even stripped down minimal techno in a way; I suppose if anything is repetitive enough, my brain latches onto it. But I can’t help think that there might be a bit of humor in here too, the sort of aural illusion as a bit of a wink while my ears try to make heads or tails out of what they’re hearing. Not every track on here is as bright and invasive as the weirdly contagious opener “New Methodical Limits Of Ascension,” with “Smooth Hang” and “Charm / Anticharm” providing dense and less rhythmic walls of drones that bend and shift while neither clearly ascending or descending. But elsewhere he turns up the volume and veers into more difficult listening, such as on the more shrill “Quasi-Segregative” or the charming fucked-upness of “Cursive Phasing.” In some of these more obtuse moments this sounds like error music, like something’s gone wrong and we’re lucky enough to hear the screwball results. That the tracks exercise Shepard-tone theory atop their own sprawling chaos is a bonus that only adds to the disorienting impression. But my favorite is the extended decline of the title cut that closes out the album, several minutes of nebulous drones that give way to rhythmic sprinkles of detuned pitch patterns; it assimilates many of the ideas found elsewhere on the album in a coherent and cohesive way. Palace Of Marvels is certainly not for everyone and may test some listeners’ patience, but I found it to be a very compelling combination of sound theory, electronic experiments and minimalism that defies context and is consistently disorienting as much as it is fascinating.