Thomas Brinkmann: What You Hear (Is What You Hear) (Editions Mego)
Techno auteur Thomas Brinkmann has always been a bit of a chameleon. For as often as he delivers the techno goods in the form of his sleek Girl series of records on Ernst or his house anthems as Soul Center, he’s just as likely to veer off the path into the furthest regions of abstraction. The first tip would be his eulogy to Zbigniew Karkowski, one of Germany’s more revered noise merchants of the last half century, with a vast discography and repertoire of sculpted noise. The first cut of this release, “Ziegelrot,” simultaneously works as a palate cleanser and a stern wake-up that the Brinkmann herein is not necessarily the Brinkmann that turned out “Tina” or “Rosa.” It’s his own Metal Machine Music, a shrill drone of noise that pretty sharply subverted any of my expectations. In that sense, it’s effective; it’s not long, and it’s not necessarily indicative of what’s to follow, other than in its sheer abstraction. “Kadmiumgelb” is a prolonged, undulating grind of noise that recalls Boyd Rice’s more meditative early noise works as NON, starting with a hissing hum before swaying to and fro like a pendulum gaining momentum. That same looping delayed effect characterizes “Indigoblau,” where the frequencies of the sounds themselves and/or delayed effects seem to expand on one another, qualifying it with a steady sense of rhythm even though it’s largely shapeless. This is where I find the album’s title to be at its most playful, an ostensibly severe slab of sound that is betrayed by its creator’s reputation as a DJ and producer, lending it a sense of utility that isn’t actually necessarily there. So is what I’m hearing really what I’m hearing? Food for thought… it’s likely the same reason the insistent, mechanical rhythm of “Agent Orange” threatens to evolve into something more than it is; we hear what we want to hear.
And yet it’s not as simple or as monotonous as it might seem when stripped of expectations; there is a surprising amount of detail in the tiniest changes of its sound. The signal sways from side to side with a recursive layering of its own, synchronized delay, and the timbre of the sound shifts from more of a pink noise to a more muted, bass-heavy sound. Of course, as to how musical this is is in the ear of the beholder; what sounds like an abstraction of rhythm and techno to my ears might simply sound like a can opener to another’s; one need only take in the prolonged crescendo of “Purpurrot” or “Mitisgrün” to attempt the distinction. But for all of the abstract fury of some selections, there is a diffuse inertness to others; “Antimongelb” sounds like a prolonged time-stretched, bending swath of pads, while “Bleiweiss” is a comparatively serene meditation. As if to announce closure, the final cut is another blast of noise, sounding more like raw guitar feedback in the shape of “Oxidrot.” While Brinkmann has never been one to shy from his more experimental impulses, he usually has done so within the tidier framework of minimal techno that he helped to coin. With What You Hear, it’s exciting to hear him breaking out into a deeper, more pure sense of abstraction, indulging in sound sheerly on its own merits with no cultural signposts or references, finding sounds within sounds, letting listeners fill in the blanks as frequencies collide and overlap. Whether evaluated as a posthumous tribute to Karkowski or an inward exploration of sound, ’s a bold statement of sound for sound’s sake, and one of the more interesting abstractions I’ve heard in some time.