A Life without Fear
lectronic enthusiasts seeking an organic, homespun reprieve from today’s sprawling techno landscape—rife with jargon, syrupy electro-house, and all things minimal—welcomed the folky sound of Ekkehard Ehlers’ lusciously layered pop project, Marz, with open arms. Indeed, it’s when hearing the group’s easy listening tunes that my ears most sure-footedly recognize Ehlers. But the Frankfurt-based sound architect has carved out an esoteric niche for work under his own name as well. In 2000, the always space-conscious Ehlers sought to explore every audible nook and cranny within the “closed systems” of composers Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives on Betrieb; by 2002 he was paying homage to a host of artistic inspirations through mini-album series Plays; and just one year later he churned out three, fully-realized abstract compositions titled Politik braucht keinen Feind. Sure, Ehlers knows his history, knows he stands atop a clunky heap of all the sound-files, field-recordings, and dusty vinyl at his disposal, knows that his work is tethered to a past whose reference points serve as the centripetal force winding up and then releasing his music into uncharted territory; but in a broad genre whose sub-genre lines are increasingly being blurred, he stands alone.
Ehlers latest offering, the southern blues-harnessing A Life without Fear, may come as a surprise, albeit as big a surprise as a guy who has made a career out of the unexpected can offer. But jeez, if this thing doesn’t initially come across as a heady chunk of murky molasses for ears accustomed to Marz’s ho-hummyness or the gorgeously nuanced loops of “Endless House.” Following a cursory listen, I have to admit to putting the album on the backburner, and it might never have reemerged from my slush pile of promos had it not been for this review. Thankfully, writing anything resembling an informed viewpoint warranted a few closer listens.
With Fear, Ehlers zeros in on samples and snippets of delta bluesman, doing patchwork as if his glitchy ear were instead a microscope highlighting the inner workings of the recordings and recompositions at play: reverberating guitar chords, raspy voices, harmonicas spread thin, the lo-fi hum of a speaker, the spit lubricating a trumpet’s mouthpiece. The album opens with “Ain’t No Grave,” an eerie, yet soulful ebb and flow of two interwoven, low-slung voices holding their heads atop a current of muddy reverb. Southern gothic, for sure. Things get downright whisky-soaked on “Strange Things,” as Charles Heffer Jr. lends his granular pipes to wax biblically about alienation; husky and deep, slow and almost pixelated, Ricardo Villalobos’ vocoder has got nothing on this guy.
The sun blesses Fear midway through: “Nie Wieder Schnell Sagen’s” languid harmonica sways like a destitute drunk still holding on to some form of innocence and dignity while making his way…somewhere; South African dirge “Misordodzi’s” heartbreaking warmth and beautiful balafon melody make the track stand out as a welcome cut from leftfield and the dewy “Maria & Martha” sounds as if it has been picked, petal by petal, from some lush, unspoiled forest. But Ehlers still saves room to convey the album’s dark underpinnings, packing them into the acoustic guitar chords and screeching strings of subtle standout “Meeresbeschimfung,” before beating them home with the frantic, gloomy plea “O Death.”
Rather than bundling up the blues into some catchy, sample-based pastiche, Ehlers instead uses A Life without Fear to take an unflinchingly close, visceral look at this gritty, soulful music. By washing the sounds in a subtle sea of fuzz, he acts as both mystifier and demystifier. The result is a sometimes difficult, always rewarding listening experience, with a few stunners along the way.
Reviewed by: James Jung
Reviewed on: 2006-05-16
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