Parts of a Greater Hole
nasmuch as anyone remembers him at all outside of post-punk enthusiasts, Scotsman Thomas Leer is known for a particularly egalitarian strain of the DIY aesthetic. His debut single, "Private Plane" from 1979, was a shimmering, lo-fi masterwork recorded on borrowed equipment in his bedroom and released on his own Oblique label. Influencing the likes of The Human League and The The, the single begat a mercurial career littered with choice collaborations, sporadic releases, and several surprisingly catchy pop tunes. Whether it was his moody early solo singles, his massive, lush 80's electro-soul opus The Scale Of Ten (assembled entirely by himself on the Fairlight sampling synthesizer) or his brief tenure as half of "electro-cabaret" duo Act on Trevor Horn's pop futurist ZTT imprint, the common thread throughout Leer's work has always been a steadfast belief in technology's capacity to empower even the least among us—a world in which ideas were elevated into the mainstream not on the basis of status, economic or otherwise, but virtue.
If such themes resonate less today, with a listening public weaned on a quarter century of synth pop, quasi-celebrity hip hop producers and amateur-musician types armed with consumer-grade samplers and a PR machine, it's merely a measure of how seamlessly Leer's DIY innovations have been integrated into pop culture. That they're no less relevant, however, is the premise underlying Parts of a Greater Hole, Leer's first release proper in nearly two decades, offering 17 tracks of cut-up vocal samples, glitch n' bass workouts and atmospheres produced on battery-powered synths and portable samplers.
As its title implies, Leer returns well aware of the fractious void the pop world devolved into since "Private Plane" arrived on the scene 26 years ago, in many ways returning to the deconstructionist approach of his 1979 collaboration with Robert Rental, The Bridge. But where that record's synth textures and plunky drum machines served at the pleasure of what were essentially homespun, if off-kilter, pop tunes—the sonic equivalent of disassembling a Toyota Camry in one's backyard only to put it back together as a souped-up luxury sedan—Parts… is content to revel in its, well, parts. An often jarring collage of hip hop beats, disjointed orchestra samples, snatches of movie dialogue, and other such musical non-sequiturs, the record works hard at fostering a brutal sense of dislocation, at least partly a reflection of the circumstances under which it was recorded (the liner notes indicate only that the record was made "in transit"). Only the blissed-out synthscape of "Bullet Train Daydream," whose aimless drift belies its title, and keyboard jam of "Interlude" suspend Leer's vision of a modern music world, schizophrenic, scatterbrained and utterly disconnected from itself.
There are heavy ideas at work here—in particular, suggestions that the freedom and technology might rather be building more cultural barriers than breaking them down. It ought to be fertile ground for a composer whose brilliant "International" twelve-inch blazed similar territory in 1984, skillfully parodying the drug trade's increasingly global reach with a deft lyric, a soothing bossa nova beat and faux-Asian flute line.
But for all the record's virtues and ambitions, it's mildly disappointing that Parts of a Greater Hole fails to truly engage them, ending up instead as yet another manifesto chronicling the diffuse mess technology has wrought. In part, the music itself does Leer's concept no favors; by heralding his long-awaited return with an instrumental rather than pop release, Leer deprives the listener of both a voice that improved with age and his exceptional skill with a lyric sheet. Perhaps more importantly, Leer's sense of pop production dynamics is buried amidst the myriad tabla samples, big beat expositions and exotic flute melodies—and where his work once celebrated the individual behind the technology, here there is little to indicate Leer is any more responsible for the results than, say, The Future Sound of London. As such, Leer treads close to something he's known a thing or two about these last few decades: anonymity. Pity.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2006-01-12