What was it that made Axel Willner’s 2007 debut full-length as The Field, From Here We Go Sublime, so damn addictive to so many different people? Borders were crossed—musically, genre-wise, and geographically. There was something special about the record that made both techno aficionados and the more pop-minded cadres of indiedom take notice, enter, and stay a long while. Home listening, headphone meandering or commuting, in the darkness of the club: it was excellent in all these scenarios. The music is often warm, fuzzy and enveloping, as well as narcotically textured to induce a sense of both closeness and voyage. There are moments thickened with repetition, limb-rattling beats, and those wondrously sheared and arranged vocals. From Here We Go Sublime was and remains both comforting and removing, the kind of stuff that leaves you a little different on the other side.
Willner has hardly been idle the years since the record was released. He put out the Sound of Light EP later in 2007, contributed a track to the 2008 Kompakt Pop Ambient Compilation, and has also done a number of remixes for, among others, Thom Yorke, Battles, Popnoname, and, most spectacularly, The Honeydrips. And, importantly, he toured a lot, leaving behind his solo laptop act in favor of more band-oriented approach that incorporated more live instruments and analogue synthesizers. None of the tracks mentioned above really suggested the direction that The Field would go with Yesterday and Today. The conversion into a live, touring and jamming band, however, did. While the ambient and techno influences that informed his previous output are still clearly displayed, tracks like “Sequencer” and “Yesterday and Today” show Willner reaching back to the Krautrock and Kosmiche sounds of bands like Harmonia, Cluster and Neu!. “Sequencer” is a 15-minute slow-mo, disco damped space-out that would sound in place alongside some of Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas’ work. It closes the album on a serenely hypnotic note, floating us off to wherever The Field goes from here…out to the beyond sublime.
That’s how things end. They begin with the sustained stasis of circulatory synths and potentialized kinetic energy that Willner is known for. “I Have the Moon, You Have the Internet” cycles slowly from place to place, awash in shoegaze textures and transmitting stillness through its whirling movements. When the beat kicks in, it doesn’t propel the piece forward so much as deepen its meditative mood. Next up is a cover of The Korgis standard, “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.” Having only heard the original on a series of Spanish bus rides, I tend to reference it back to the cover that Jon Brion and Beck did for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was notable for the dense atmosphere of melancholy that made it feel like a claustrophobic incantation of love (or its impossibility). The Field takes the track in an altogether different direction, suspending it on the rising and falling of hovering synths and the slow, rhythmic thump of the drums. It is buoyant and mildly euphoric, a swirling anthem for the bleary-eyed or love struck.
The narcotic elation that characterized the shifts in some of the tracks on From Here We Go Sublime (on, for instance, “Everyday” and “Silent”) is dialed back for the most part here. Electronic ecstasies are constantly put into a state of push-and-pull with more sober, organic elements. Exemplary is “Leave It,” a track that starts off in overdrive, a wall of heady synths and chiming over a thumping beat, before being anchored in an engaging tension with the bassline that appears about three minutes in. The title track begins by balancing a repetitive sample against a cosmic drone, kicks into a manic passage where one of Willner’s trademark micro-sampled voices appears and a synth helicopters around in the background, and then boils down into a bass groove and some inspired drum thwacking by John Stanier of Battles. There is much more depth to the music on Yesterday and Today which should appeal to those who found From Here We Go Sublime a bit too clean and clinical. The spectacular surfaces remain, but always in contact with the looser layering of a live band.
“The More That I Do” is the first single from the record and the most similar to previous Field material. It’s organized around sampled snippets of Cocteau Twins’ outstanding “Lorelei,” organized so as to mesmerize and then, at a breaking point, go sublime, The Field way. The sample is a perfect fit for Willner’s style and when the drone, shuffle and repeat really takes hold, you may find you have been floated. Yesterday and Today is a bold and captivating stride off the map for The Field and one that presages more of the like to come. Until then, this record will be spinning and spinning without, I suspect, losing its power to move in the least.
Gas – Pop
Harmonia – Deluxe
Michael Mayer – Immer
Stream: “The More That I Do”