The four electronic albums reviewed below speak to the importance of rhythm — or maybe just drums. This music shows that cleansing bursts of energy can mesmerize as well as excite; empty musical space is rarely empty — something is often hidden; and, finally, pitched percussion is marvelous.
Pantha du Prince: Conference of Trees (Modern Recordings)
Pantha du Prince makes percussive ambient techno in which constant rhythmic twitching replaces the genre’s usual ostinato drone. On this album, the German composer takes a pastoral turn as he seeks music to express communication among trees.
Pantha is attuned to the extra patterns and harmonies in white noise, and here he lowers his ear to the ground. This album suggests that the secret language of trees is a densely gnarled one, as roots and leaves erupt in resonant chatter. Bells are Pantha’s sonic signature; over the past decade he has deployed them as rhythmic agents capable of producing a percussive but melodic racket. They abound on this album, along with a whole host of pitched percussion devices: xylophones and homemade wood blocks entwine with electronic clicks, clonks, thumps, and rattles, all calibrated in spacious harmony.
The mix of acoustic and electronic textures creates a sense of organic elements participating in a huge symbiotic system; the album seems to smell of pine needles and soil. On “Pius in Tacet,” an echoing chorus of bells chirps and chimes, while a deep cello swings back and forth to ground the sprightly energy; and on “Transparent Tickle Shining Glace,” rhythmic hyperactivity conjures peace, as high metal ping-pongs and deep wooden thwacks roll and collide against each other relentlessly to capture a feeling of slow-motion grandeur.
Evoking an expansive natural world hidden from human eyes — and thus demonstrating that nature and technology are not incompatible — is not a new idea in ambient techno (or the weirder corners of folk music), but the imagined environments usually have soporific qualities, aiming for an even stillness that’s hard to crack. Pantha’s drum explosions breathe; they shift gradually and flare suddenly to draw you in.
This album is as solid and earthy as cedar. If you hear drumming beneath your feet, it’s just the trees talking again.
Beatrice Dillon: Workaround (Pan)
On collaborative albums, standalone singles, and DJ mixes, Beatrice Dillon has alternated between noisy and ambient modes, but her sound is unified by a fondness for unpredictable rhythms. On her first proper album, the London producer invents her own style of percussive minimalism, assembling an imposing wall of drum machines.
Dillon’s strategy will be familiar to fans of dub and drum & bass (as well as Indian classical music): as one or two keyboards spiral in a repetitive loop to provide minimal melodic content, the drums go crazy. She scatters an extraordinary range of fragmented sound effects over deadpan, bare-bones drum machine clicks (uniformly at 150 BPM): tabla, kora, woodwinds, filtered voices — all splintered to be as blunt as the drums themselves, folded into and behind the staccato bounce, tucked away in rhythmic corners.
Consequently, this ostensibly spare music is full of dissonant harmonic surprises. “Clouds Strum” builds a stuttering, multifaceted rhythm from electronic claps and sharp keyboard stabs, then includes a single tabla note just a half-step up, adding friction to a beat that would otherwise glide unimpeded. On “Workaround Three,” plucked strings, scraped drums, and slowly strummed off-key guitar chords are buried beneath a beat that sounds like the rapid snipping of scissors, punctuated occasionally by a piano chord that sounds off, like the player made a mistake.
This album recalls Jlin’s Black Origami, on which drums similarly lead the way, yet Dillon’s dissonances are subtler — her beats sound empty and metronomic until you notice all the little jitters lurking in between. Such clean staccato usually suggests the producer’s mastery over technology and the computer’s mastery over all it processes, but here the music just keeps unfolding, and the more you listen the more the polished surface cracks. The message is that even simplicity is complicated.
Simultaneously stark and rich, this album combines the crisp pleasures of minimalism with the cushy delight that comes with luxuriating in texture. It skitters lightly and with relish.
DJ Python: Mas Amable (Incienso)
A tribute and a deconstruction, DJ Python’s “deep reggaeton” accentuates everything that’s already chill and spacey about the genre and stretches reggaeton’s characteristic dembow rhythms into gentle instrumental meditations. This is his smoothest album yet, gliding through pristinely relaxing air-conditioned spaces.
The centerpiece is the eleven-minute “ADMSDP,” with seven surrounding shorter pieces that all ride the same extended beat, as if the album were a single track or a seamless DJ mix. On “ADMSDP,” poet LA Warman delivers a spoken-word soliloquy over drums that have been chopped into intricate, watery loops. Faint but audible, Warman’s murmurs seem to disappear beneath the scratchy, sanded-down beats before her voice emerges from the reverb like a transmission from nowhere, as eerie and disquieting as the best trip-hop.
The rest of the album is even more sparse, as Python’s restrained drums bound forward largely unaccompanied, exploring ever more complex variations on the dembow beat, although decorative noises sometimes appear: scratching on “Alejandro,” stiff bass on “oooophi,” lush keyboard chimes on “Pia,” bells on “mmmm,” and ambient wind, rain, and bird whistles throughout the album.
Such a sequence could easily feel gratuitous, like a padded single, yet the beats are woven together with delicacy and cohesion. Perhaps because Python uses empty space strategically, as part of the composition, or perhaps because he treats dance beats as aesthetic objects in themselves, worthy of contemplation, this music is suffused by quiet emotion; it inhabits an enviably calm headspace that beguiles.
Python has achieved something rare — he has created engaging dance music that also works as an ambient soundscape. From blankness arises feeling.
Yaeji: What We Drew (XL)
Yaeji’s music veers uneasily between dancefloor uplift and experimental techno, whose fragmented lurches can hinder the flow. On this mixtape, the Brooklyn producer succumbs to quiet reticence.
In the past, Yaeji has crafted dance tracks with a muggy midtempo warmth, capturing the hazy intimacy of a night out (for example, her excellent remix of Drake’s “Passionfruit”). She’s capable of dense abrasion, too (“Full of It” is a club banger that is also a protest song). Here, she aims for something spikier and more oblique, embracing the recent art-pop convention of garbled vocal manipulation as typified by FKA Twigs and Bon Iver.
Yaeji’s half-sung, half-rapped vocals, mixing English and Korean, rapidly assume and discard various electronic filters, changing shape with every verse. Artificial whooshes and amplified exhalations abound; her voice seems soaked in a queasy digital film. Continually tinkering with the sound of her voice produces a sense of relentless self-scrutiny, of anxiously sorting through disguises. The effect is to make her sound ghostly and disembodied.
On “In Place,” she loops a mumble, then spookily harmonizes with it; halfway through, she distorts her voice down several octaves, morphing into a booming monotone before revving back into a squeal. Her spoken intonations on “Waking Up Down” shiver, as a squiggly synthesizer spirals wildly between high and low registers.
To allow her vocal tricks some space, the beats have become quieter, often consisting solely of muted drums and a single glassy keyboard layer; her songs resemble unfinished sketches. The exception is the uplifting “In the Mirror,” in which an eruption of whirling drums and keyboard screeches startles after two minutes of tension-building fuzz.
She’s disrupted forms but hasn’t shaped new ones, instead producing a collection of uneven sonic shards. It’s too skeletal to truly alarm.