Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Sven Wittekind "Broken Mirrors" (Sick Weird Rough)

Coldplay have been in our neighbourhood the last few nights, playing a few shows at our local football ground. So instead of the usual matchday scenes (our town becoming a veritable Little Moscow, swarmed by high-end bling, champagne breakfasts and jet-black Range Rovers), we've had an influx of earnest graduates sporting preppy fashions, and suburban couples driving Volvos. For its part, the Highbury Tavern declared it "Coldplay weekend", and put on its own 'pre-show' specials (presumably milky tea, and weak lager). Don't remember them doing that when the Fall decamped to Islington for four nights, the bastards.

Just outside the Tavern, in Highbury Barn Square (not far from the clock tower at the top of Highbury Hill that was erected in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee) there was a street party to mark Queen Elizabeth II's sixty years in clover. It seemed incongruous that the Union flags, face-painting and souvenir bunting were overlooked by the plaque commemorating the spot where Highbury Manor had been burned to the ground during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Incongruous and slightly sad: something Juvenal said about bread and circuses comes to mind. Yet, in the corner, there was a little baby, resolutely sound asleep, ignoring the obligatory jazz trio and enforced merrymaking. Perhaps his obliviousness to it all was his way of making a thoroughly Republican protest. Or perhaps it was just his nap time. Either way, his dad was very proud of him.

Anyway, to the matter in hand.

* * * * *

Here's a hypothetical scenario for you. Given the diamond jubilee weekend, it seems only fair to use "The Queen Is Dead" as our example. So think back to the impact which that record - so eagerly awaited - had on you when you first heard it unfurl, track by track.

Next, imagine how different it would have been if, instead of including one previous single and trailing it with one more, Rough Trade had decided not to release the LP at all until more than half of the songs, and all the best ones, had already been released as singles. You would have come back from the record shop only to quickly realise that you had basically paid six quid for "Never Had No One Ever", "Frankly Mr Shankly" and "Vicar In A Tutu".

Yes, Sven's much-anticipated (by us if not by you) third album is a nine-tracker which includes no less than *five* previous singles. That's some 40 minutes of already-bought music: grrrr. Once the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over though, the considerable upside is that those five singles - including two of our top ten singles of 2011 - make a considerable contribution to the all-round excellence of this album. And despite the stabbingly obvious cover art (Sven looking moodily into a - gasp - broken mirror), there is nothing as straightforward or workaday about the seamless way which he continues to create techno charged with just the right blend of urgency and (albeit suppressed) emotiion.

"Rapture of Deep", originally released on Andy White's Audiosignal label last year, makes for a powerful opener. It starts as brooding undersea mood music, punctured by dubbed-out depth charges of crashing drum. Gradually, warm torrents of bass, anchored by a full beat, wash into the rhythm: as Sven switches on the undulating bass current and insistent percussive mesh that currently define his sonic landscapes (or, in the case of "Rapture", seascapes), it feels that "Broken Mirrors" is properly underway. A second top-notch single, last year's "Disturbed" follows: it swaps "Rapture"'s atmospheric build for a woozy, throbbing bassline which weaves in and out of the mix, framed by constantly shuffling, pitch-shifting drum patterns and occasional frissons of hi-hat.

With the template (and the standard) set, "Mind Control" maintains the momentum with its descending scales and mischievous sound effects before "Haunted By Visions" (as you can tell, the song titles are more abstract and less entertaining than those on previous LP "Fight For Techno", and less painfully literal than those on his "Seven Deadly Sins" debut) injects light industrial panache. And we reach the middle of the album, with most recent single "The Twirl" (the proper taster single, like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" was) taking centre stage. It sounds even better in the context of the album than it did as 'lone striker'.

Unlike the fastidiously-sculpted 'first side' (although sadly, unlike those first two albums there is no vinyl version of this one) the remaining tracks oscillate a little more in style. The epic "Hubster", a single from the best part of two years ago, is still a highlight of his discography, its buzzing synth and trenchant bass rumble gathering in force until reaching a serene plateau. Although as carefully hewn as the rest of the album, it's probably the *hardest* song here. Yet it's followed by last year's distinctly *underwhelming* cut, "Devil Inside", which starts with promising minimalism but soon reveals itself to be no more than half a song idea, hijacked by a lame vocal sample. We seriously suspect that Sven has only included "Devil Inside" to show that he is human after all: the distance between "Hubster" and "Devil Inside" is, to wilfully misquote Paul Morley, the difference between a dream and a cardboard box.

Happily, "Stolen Paradise" sees Mr Wittekind switch focus once again: it starts with an excitable flurry of drums which arrive at a feral crescendo before the song settles into an elastic groove, populated by a repetitively-clanking metallic gong. Bringing "Broken Mirrors" back onto the rails, it's a perfect lead-up to album closer "Darkness (All Night)" which - although interspersed with another deranged vocal, pointlessly intoning the track title in the style of John Hurt's Dragon (why do you do this to us, Sven ? WHY ?) - still manages to elegantly compress the pent-up emotion of the previous songs into a silky denouement, finishing in gentle triumph amidst the sweet morning dew and a chink of sky lit by the sun's first glare.

One of the reasons that "Broken Mirrors" (largely) works so well is that despite knocking on the door of the 70-minute mark, it doesn't have any songs which attempt to emulate the bold, stretched-out and almost neo-classical experiments of post-"Fight For Techno" singles "Dangerzone" or his collaboration with Andy White, "Bass Junkies". Dazzling and ambitious as those songs were, they perfectly suited the extended EP format, and would not have fitted with the more club-sympathetic, if still haunting, world he creates on this LP.

2012 has provided us so far with three fine, if contrasting, full-length techno sets: from Deh-NoizerSpiros Kaloumenos and now Sven. And the good news (for you lot) is that we know you well enough to suspect you probably haven't already bought the five preceding singles. Which leaves no reason in Hades not to give yourself an appropriately Teutonic post-jubilee treat by rushing out through those lately flag-bedecked, bunting-strewn streets and snaffling "Broken Mirrors" from your local record shop.

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