Brothomstates – Untitled; Stephan Mathieu – A Microsound Fairytale

by 5:4

The next recommendations in my series looking at free internet music are a pair of pieces exploring extremes of computer-mangled audio. The first is a new release from Finnish composer Lassi Nikko, better known as Brothomstates, and even writing his name in the context of a new release – something i never thought i’d be able to do – has immediately put a big smile back on my face. i’ve been a Brothomstates fan for many, many years; since 2001 in fact, when Claro – a gloriously euphoric blend of ambient, electronica and IDM – was released on the Warp label. That in turn led to me plundering his back catalogue, both his 1998 self-released debut album Kobn-Tich-Ey (apparently one of the earliest ever MP3 album releases, which in many respects contains the seeds of what would become Claro) as well as his extensive collection of music created as part of the once vibrant demoscene community, under the name Dune. Both the album and the demoscene tracks are still all freely available online courtesy of, though anyone wanting to explore the latter should bear in mind they’re all in S3M or MOD format, which will need to be played in VLC media player (which can also convert them), Winamp or an equivalent.

Having piqued my interest and emphatically got my attention back in 2001, three years passed before Rktic, a brilliantly pumped-up two-track, 14-minute single… and then silence, which was only broken in the last few days of last year when Untitled was released as a free download on the Misc label. Nikko describes it as a satirical “counter-reaction to the unrelenting maximalism of today’s saturated sonic field, where crushed kicks, plastic piano leads and idiotic lovestruck psychobleets, compressed into tinnitus-inducing oblivion, reign supreme.” What this counter-reaction amounts to is an outburst of über-plunderphonics, a kind of mash-up to end all mash-ups, though the magic of the piece – quite apart from its relentless, magnificent energy – is in its central sonic paradox: on the one hand there’s a constant sense of blur due to the quantity and pace of its churning elements, yet somehow the clarity of all these transient details is vivid and absolute. Like music in fast-forward and slow-motion at the same time, it’s a really marvellous effect, and from the perspective of beats, it keeps tantalisingly making one poised to get physically involved, yet resists ever becoming locked into a groove, constantly slip-sliding out of metric regularity. Nikko breaks everything down into a dense slew of stuff in the closing minute, as if taking all that went before and liquidising it, before the piece practically malfunctions at the very end in a rising sequence of electronic bleeps. i’d like to feel optimistic that this unexpected release might indicate more to come from Brothomstates in future, though his decade-plus of hibernation perhaps suggests it’s best, for now, just to enjoy what there is. Untitled is a free release, but if you’ve got £150 burning a hole in your pocket, it seems – though this may be a joke – that it’s possible to buy the piece in high-res audio in the form of a large sandstone USB stick in the shape of a gravestone.

Yet more extreme in its deployment of sound is A Microsound Fairytale, by German sound artist Stephan Mathieu. Originally released in 2003 on the Dutch Korm Plastics label as part of their ‘Kapotte Muziek’ series, and re-released by Mathieu as a free download on Bandcamp in 2015, the astonishing soundworld of the piece is explained in the slightly different descriptions Mathieu provided with each version, which i’ve amalgamated here:

Exchanging my Pismo laptop for a brand new iBook, upgrading from OS9 to OSX in October 2002, the first thing I wanted to finish with my new machine was a long overdue rework for Kapotte Muziek. I spent eight months processing raw material, resulting in the usual several gigabytes. When it was about time for me to finish the piece I returned to my files to edit them down in ProTools (Mac OS9). I re-listened to everything, made some adjustments, and then rebooted in OSX to work in Soundhack. After a little while my machine crashed, hard — so hard that all I could do to restart it was to take out the batteries. When I finally rebooted in OSX, my computer came up with one of my favorite pieces of music, playing it all by itself upon restart by spitting out the contents of its buffer in a cascade of data. A Microsound Fairytale is an unedited 16Bit MiniDisc recording of this event.

The result is a very specific type of noise music, distinct and different from the likes of, say, Merzbow, Zbigniew Karkowski or Kenji Siratori. The closest comparisons i can think of are the two tracks of aural blitzkreig on Aphex Twin’s Smojphace EP and the latter half of Alva Noto’s Unitxt – both of which antedate Mathieu’s piece, and are very much shorter. At 21 minutes’ duration, i’ve perhaps already made it sound like an intimidating, even unbearable listening prospect. But it’s more than mere noise, in two important respects.

First, while it is incredibly intense, it falls short of becoming ferocious (and, in case the point needs to be made, that’s with the volume turned to maximum!), but this is less to do with sheer volume than with what we might call its topography. The impression of sound being brutally mauled and lacerated is pervasive but not omnipresent, regularly broken up by small hiatuses, lending the dense splurges of stuff the sense of being islands within a larger environment. The issue of volume is significant, though, as the shifting timbral nature of its soundworld is such that it can be listened to at a high volume without destroying either your speaker coils or basilar membranes. Your mileage may vary, of course, and it’s probably advisable to approach it with caution, but in my experience this is not music that hurts.

Second, and this is an extension of its topographical nature, like the Brothomstates piece A Microsound Fairytale also exhibits a paradoxical aspect though less to do with clarity than with its behaviour and sense of direction. If Mathieu’s account of the work’s creation is accurate, then there’s little reason to expect – or attempt to retro-fit – any kind of structure or narrative. And indeed, it would be hard to argue that its sense of musical drama is anything other than spontaneous, inscrutable, not to say entirely arbitrary. Yet, as one so often finds with music created from random or unplanned decisions, there is an uncanny sense of order and even, at times, deliberation in the way the music behaves. Whether this is the result of pareidoliaapophenia or just old fashioned wishful thinking is impossible to say, but it hardly matters. The work’s fluxional demeanour, like a disintegrated shape-shifter trying to piece itself back together, forms a convincing and engaging narrative in its own enigmatic right, given peculiar shape by the recurring flashes of something recognisably concrete that appear at various points, usually in the chaotic midst of ominous deep growls and buzzings, halting and grinding bleeps, and sporadic oscillations and cycling patterns. The hiatuses i mentioned before are fascinating too, moments that afford the briefest of glimpses at ’empty’ machine ambience. Mathieu may not have edited the recording, but his decision on where to end the piece is very nicely judged, the material focusing in an effluvial torrent that sounds like one’s ears are millimetres away from a choir of circular saw blades. Incredible, mind-blowing stuff.

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