Oval is a strange project to approach. One on hand, each of the records is of a high quality, managing to circle the same influences of glitch, IDM, ambient and other high-image electronic textures without feeling like they step on one another. In terms of catalog, Oval’s Markus Popp is one of the few electronic artists to provide a strong challenge to Aphex Twin and Autechre’s well-guarded thrones, producing work that lives in the same world of digitalist sound collage and electronic portraiture. But on the other, Oval seems to be without the same kind of eruptive breakthrough record those other artists have acquired and, in turn, lacks a kind of critical center against which to judge Popp’s work. He remains, frustratingly, a well-kept secret of the electronic music world, beloved within the community but largely unknown outside its borders.
His newest record Scis shows greatly the frustration this can cause. Each of its 10 tracks rides the fine line between dense avant-gardism and accessibility, managing to cram high-concept longform imagistic conceits into pop song capsule lengths. No track on the record exceeds five minutes and the shortest is 3:52, meaning each of these slices is of relatively consistent size, and yet their internalities feel wildly different. Some are like the jangling and resonance of wine glasses tinkling gently against each other as power drills whir and whine. Others feel like jacking into the matrix, Neuromantic full-color simple geometry arranged in a vaporwave plane while, distantly, a marble fortress assembles and gestures to chromium dolphins of the digital seas.
These tracks feel encyclopedia of the general post-IDM digital soundscape, marrying soundimages in pleasant and striking ways, making burbling synths sit next to sawtooth waves and near-dubsteb sidechaining wubs. This is a well-earned sense of encylopedicism; Oval has been active since the very early ’90s after all and, within the scene, is viewed with similar favor as the other big names of ’90s electronica in terms of generating the palette the bigger avant-gardists like the vaporwave set built their concepts from.
The greatest gift of this set is also its biggest detraction, unfortunately. Artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre were able to breakthrough partly because of a coherent soundimage we can associate with those artists, with the aesthetic unions such as the music video for “Come To Daddy” along with its accompanying album art married against the sounds on the single seeming to create this eruptive sonic identity that people could grow attached to. On Scis, meanwhile, the juxtapositions manage to be far enough afield that, without these kinds of guide images, they fail to cohere into something legible as a new form while remaining generally consonant enough with each other that they don’t feel wildly avant-garde and explosive either.
This is not to say that they are not good tracks, to be clear; it is hard to imagine someone interested in electronic music or experimental/avant-garde work not compelled by these tracks, both individually and as a set. It is ironically that their sound images are almost too lush, generating not a single and persuasive static image but instead full worlds. You can almost swear you can smell the heat and moisture of the jungle, see the harsh static of glitch-parrots and steel lizards emerging from the dense foliage. But the associations of Scis feel gem-like, fractal, constantly bursting apart and generating something new just around the bend. It’s as intoxicating as it is confusing on close listen, all without sacrificing the base pleasures of being able to zone out to powerful electronic beats.
Scis is an intriguing listen, one that’s too approachable to be considered properly elliptic while being too strange and evasive to be confidently labeled a pop release. It has the character of an album you return to again and again, forgetting it for a month or two at a time before discovering it on shuffle or wedged between other records out of alphabetic sequence in your record collection. Scis doesn’t feel like a 2020 album but only because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to any time at all really; like the other greats of the electronic music field, it feels like it could be picked up and put on decades hence and still feel like a record out-of-time, arriving from some world where they measure days by some other dimension. It’s intriguing and leaves a lingering trace. One suspects it might wind up being one of the best electronic records of the year.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.