The Legend of Our New World
Photos courtesy of Rooftop Promotions
by Kelly Burnette (Sept 2002)What's wonderful about the Argentinean/L.A. transplanted duo Languis (Marcos Chocla and Alejandro Cohen) is that you never see 'em coming. There is absolutely nothing obvious in their music, except that their painterly tonal explorations have succeeded in etching a place all of their own-- both in the contemporary scene and in the history of unpopular music. That they've done this is tough to determine in itself. You might be listening to one of their records and be thinking, 'well, this sounds like so-and-so,' or 'this is a particular genre or other.' Then something happens. Something so subtle that changes the complexion of the song ever so slightly, yet at the same time can be world shattering and apocalyptic. That, my friends, is the essence of their art: understatement.
The progression from their first CD Simball Sounds, to their upcoming title Untied (all on Simball Sounds Music) seems to reflect a 'coldening'--a paradoxically willful surge toward anonymity in an almost religious sense. It seems like a Buddhist prayer intended to reach a place devoid of ego. Or am I chasing shadows? Contrary to the crassest perception of what art means, i.e. self-expression, these guys seem to take a different stab at the whole damn thing. And if the knife hasn't landed yet, when it does, they'll be sure to twist it a few extra times just for kicks. But they probably won't be smiling or laughing. They probably won't even be there at all. So what does all of this mean exactly?
I'd say that they, with their cue from Autechre (maybe) are mapping out a new kind of pop-minimalism. While Autechre seems to go about it entirely electronically, Languis fuses the electronic with the acoustic, producing results which garner both feelings of familiarity and stark isolation. What sounds do bubble forth as cuddly and romantic dissipate into a fray of minuscule binaries. Fortunately for us, they aren't sentimental. Instead, they are very quietly pulling up the stage props and removing the comfortable scenery that decorates our technocentric world. The result is a stunning aural plane, a stoic assemblage that is as original as it is banal. In my opinion, they are the aesthetic heirs to the legacy of Can. Their tempered passion conjoined with precise timing reveals a deeper understanding of the dramatic in music. With their repetitive bass lines and treated polyrythms, they seem to capture a bit of Future Days or Ege Bamyasi in their champagne bubble, near-melodic misses. This isn't a strict comparison because that would just be stupid. But there is more parallel here, I think, than askew between the two.
If Can's music was tinted rose to pale rose, then Languis' songs are a bit more pale, a bit more dismissive or jaded, but not entirely devoid of optimism or even hope. However, on the earlier material on Simball Sounds, when they hadn't refined their craft so well, we find the outwardly ecstatic "Ultra-Color Neutralizer"--an almost happy-go-lucky ditty of the first degree. With its rambling synth melody and steady tick-tick drum line, we get just a brush of warmth tempered with a near silent sense of the foreboding. All this relayed to us by subtle harmonic dissonance and off the wall bended tone freak-outs. At this moment, you'll find Languis as emotionally forthright as you ever will. And it's a good kick off point to a body of work which has consistently become better. Likewise, on "Athletic Standard", Languis seems to wink at us a bit with the slick sounding guitar line that hovers above a synthetic, phased out pop groove. In fact, the guitar work is a bit like that of David Gilmour except that its more compact and less drenched in the standard '70's strat-0-cast of which we've all heard so much. In this case, the guitar seems to be more self-reflexive than self-indulgent. And not in a blatantly 'clever' or postmodern way (phew). Luckily, they seem to dodge that bullet whether it be on purpose or by accident. Hey... or maybe it's there because they think it sounds good there. The material you'll find on this record might just be an unconscious update of a song like "Sing Swan Song" or "Moonshake." This is a good record, but it isn't strictly representative of what Languis has turned out to be.
Enter 1999's Last Frequency Presets. Right out of the gate, we're introduced to a slightly different sound. The unmistakable musical foundation of Languis is present, but I guess they were keeping those last frequency presets in the refrigerator. Appropriately enough, the CD opens with a track entitled "Pieces of Objects"- a fractured display of shades of gray and shining chrome. "Pieces" sets the tone for the rest of their output. On the next cut, "Flamedrops," Languis introduces us to some nitrous inspired vocalizing that is marinated drugginess par excellence. As importantly as the general feel of the music, the lyrics seem to bolster an ontological uncertainty paired with searing images of magic realism and that other stuff of life, decay:the wall of glass reflected what wasn't there/flamedrops exploded like rain/There is simultaneous magical presentation of life and death, and an ensuing feeling that nature is underhandedly hostile in its entropy. But Languis is interesting in that there is an implicit conflict between what they perceive as is and what they perceive as may be. Could the technology they use suffice to prepare our way to a better future, or should we be wary of that [technology] simply because of what we are? At this point, Languis has turned into a very good, poetic and thoughtful entity.
or was it false/a hundred years later the same place/
the young dying soldier has said/ now here we go forward ahead;
when birds fly back/across the pink blue sky/
cosmic forces fight/divided not by chance/
away to not return/where I found my life/
sinister they are/still the birds fly back
Lyrically, Can's "Future Days" seems to mull over the same kind of ideas, perhaps though with more optimism, but with no less a feeling of something surreal and otherworldly. The music too, with is minute and half or so ambient introduction, is remarkably like that of Languis... or the other way around I should say. Sure, there's more warmth and a broader line of instrumentation in Can's music. But the buried, rainy-day vocals and mesmerizing rhythms are undeniably linked in their pathos.
This comparison becomes clearer with Languis' Unithematic CD. This is the first title where they seem to fully realize themselves. This is the first record where we get the full impact of their use of acoustic instruments combined with electronic harmonies and drum lines. As you might guess, their use of electronics has matured along with their songwriting skills and sense of dynamics. There aren't many flashy production bits here, so the solid songs are able shine through. This is a very beautiful record, well balanced and brimming with rounded brilliance. The first two cuts define a dichotomy on this record. The first, "A Bridge to a Closer View" with it's friendly hybrid of synthesizer and guitar, welcomes ya' in. Hell, it even rubs your feet for ya. Then the second cut, "Counting the Days," is outright mysterious, even latently ominous. But even the hallucinatory good looks of the song can't stave off what seems to be a cold front coming in. And so it does, with its distant sun unsympathetically peeling back every landscape imaginable, revealing the organic musculature of the earth, finally fizzling (sizzling?) out... sucked into itself. Things fall apart.
Unithematic is an excellent record. If the title isn't clue enough, this album is as conceptually tight as it is musically. By this time, Languis has reached a plateau for themselves. But is it their zenith? When a band does a record that is this well-wrought and natural it is often hard for them to follow it up. That's been a jinx in all of art, whether it be the fault of the critics not 'getting it', or just that the band was spent. But on Languis' Untied (release date in June, I think), we find a wonderful continuation of the happenings on Unithematic. Here we discover the ongoing investigation of the themes they seem to hold dear, and no less attention to their art. One thing that I can say upon listening to this record is that their seems to be a desire to really join the organic/inorganic duality that's always been present in their music. Titles like "Waterfall," "Touch a Cloud" and "Grove" all suggest a longing to be one with nature. In itself this implies an alienation from it. So their meditations on these issues continue and are no less rewarding. They steer clear of ubiquitous trendiness (despite their being lumped with a somewhat vogue-ish genre, IDM) and opt instead for a good, hard look at both themselves and the world around them. Maybe that's one of the reasons Can never sold multi-millions of records in their prime. They were just too much and too thoughtful for the somnambulist populace.
I've run Languis by some musically less adventurous folks with disappointing results. But hey, there's just no accounting for the tastes of the masses. It's just a shame that in this complex world, such a gem as Languis is marginalized. We all know why certain hacks get the respect and that the best never really do. Languis is one of the best--and I hope the situation changes, even if it is just a little, for them. But in this climate of 'extreme' bullshit-- extreme music and extreme chicken fingers and extreme soft drinks-- something as artful as understatement tends to get squashed. But, I suppose, if you're Languis that doesn't matter. I doesn't affect you. It shouldn't. Just keep up the excellent work.
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