The problem with electronic music lies in its tendency to be too synthetic. You can throw in as many blues samples or guest vocalists as you want, but you still can’t mask the fact that the beats are all coming from the same Roland 303. If all you’re looking for are club bangers, then it really doesn’t matter how mechanical it sounds. But for some us, there’s more to music than deep bass and danceable grooves. We want songs. We want melodies. We want emotion.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Many electronic artists are able to put personality in their music. Just look at the oddball spazz-beat of Aphex Twin. Or the beer-larity of Fatboy Slim. Or the warm textures of Boards of Canada. There are plenty of good examples of how electronic music should be done. But few producers are guilty of accomplishing a beat-driven album as seemingly organic and as enjoyable for the sampling impaired as Ulrich Schnauss has on his latest, A Strangely Isolated Place.
It’s quite obvious from the first 30 seconds of “Gone Forever” that Schnauss has spent some time with 4AD and Creation Records’ early ’90s catalogs. A heavenly wash of sound crashes over a few seconds of silence underneath an angelic vocal. At first I was under the impression that Schnauss had a weird voice, albeit one that sounds much like that of Sigur Ros’ Jon-Thor Birgisson. But a quick read through his one-sheet informed me otherwise — the vocals were provided by his girlfriend.
In just that instance of transcendent sound, I was convinced that this actually wasn’t an electronic album. But then the beats started up, rolling underneath the silken layers like a more sophisticated Moby. But that was only the first song. And A Strangely Isolated Place has seven other gems that seduce the listener into a toxin-free high.
“On My Own” is a more straightforwardly danceable track, with heavier layers of feedback and more female vocals. It would make a surefire dance hit, if the ecstasy mongers were to open their minds to something other than drugs and deep house. “Monday – Paracetamol” is another moment of brilliance, recalling Boards of Canada in its fusion of pleasant textures and paranoid melodies. Just about every track is graceful and gorgeous, but the shortest among them is six-and-a-half minutes, so prepare yourself for a lengthy listen.
A Strangely Isolated Place isn’t too far removed from shoegazer bands of the ’90s or less hyperactive IDM artists of today. What you call it isn’t that important, as long as you know what it is — brilliant.
Manitoba – Up in Flames
Boards of Canada – Music has the Right to Children
Slowdive – Souvlaki
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.