t is a great irony of a large portion of electronic based music when you hear live instrumentation. The reason, when not financial, for electronic musicians to not use live instrumentation, but to sample it or manipulate electronic sounds to approximate a real instrument, seems readily apparent. Because they can replicate sounds that can not be created normally by humans, right? It would seem, though, that the introduction of live instruments into an electronic context would allow for the manipulation- interesting effects, repairing marred takes, and the disappearance of the true sound of the instrument. However, a new dynamic emerges when the natural instrument is left untreated. The duel between man and machine is an issue that has been debated through sound and critique many times. Oftentimes, the effect comes off as forced. The harder the producer tries to make the mix sound “real,” the more inauthentic the result. Other times the result is a glorious dichotomy of analog and digital fighting for aural supremacy.
Warp has never been known as a label to push the boundary between analog and digital. In fact, their two manifesto releases- the Artificial Intelligence compilations- were almost defiantly against the use of acoustic instrumentation. The aesthetic of bedroom recording was the main driving factor for the label at the time. Times change, however. Aphex Twin has seemed to have hit a wall in the innovation department, rehashing old material on Drukqs. Autechre has gone far past the bounds of accessibility, making tracks for themselves now, it seems. Even Squarepusher’s attempt at vitality last year was hidden beneath his embarrassing genre exercise. It was the only interesting track on the entire album, which was mainly characterized by rehashing the same material that had been gone over in Big Loada, Hard Normal Daddy, and Feed Me Weird Things. Breakbeats falling over themselves in a sort of futurist simultaneity was interesting the first two times, cute the third, but now the appeal has worn thin. You get the feeling, however, that Warp knows the situation quite well. The amount of new artists signed and released in the past year has to be a record for the label and, while the group is largely hit and miss, the fresh blood signals the fact that Warp is under the impression that Aphex might actually make good on the promise of never recording again that he has made after each consecutive album.
Enter Req. Echoing Warp’s new found predeliction for hip hop, Req has been a known graffiti artist for a number of years in England. As well as this artistic output, Req also joined up with the Skint label and Norman Cook early on in his career because of their reported shared love of break beats. Inspiration grew out of Cook’s Beats International remix projects and Req soon began recording his own tunes. After releasing a few EP’s and LP’s for the Skint label, Warp came calling. Sketchbook is Req’s debut offering for the label and it continues in the exemplification of his work, thus far, that has been put out on Skint.
Req’s attitude towards recording feeds into the natural vs. mechanical debate. He makes note of the transient quality of music and his various modes of representation, music and painting. This is reflected in the quality of the recording, which reminds of a tape that has been overplayed. This willful simplicity would sound forced if Req was using digital effects to create this sound. However, his instruments of use are sometimes, on his “8 Models In A Sauna” release, actually old tapes that have been taped over. It adds an interesting air of realism to the proceedings. It doesn’t hurt, also, when the music is as enveloping as it is.
Req uses dirty drum samples, old gamelan recordings, and what sound like music boxes to create a pastiche of stripped down ambient hip hop. Some songs work better than others, of course. “Upstairs” pairs a hip hop beat with a short melody working against each other over its five minute length. These two elements fight back and forth for supremacy, both eventually fading to the next song at the end, finally content with each other. “Wasp Zither” features the gamelan melody that almost is worth the price of this disc alone. It is played off a beat that sounds a bit like a geyser emitting a bit of smoke on the first beat of each measure. It is easily the highlight of the disc and sounds like it might be the most complex song on the record.
Overall, the record does suffer from its stripped down nature. With only a small bank of sounds used for each song, and Req’s apparent steadfastness to the original sample, the songs do tend to get a bit long, in the middle. This truth is tempered by the fact that the elements used are so simple that it allows for a lot of space within the compositions and adds an airy quality to each song. The greatest feat of the record, in the end, is the timelessness of the sound. It is a record that could be made at anytime, by anybody, and will most likely never sound dated. It’s a timelessness that can be enjoyed right now, even, as I’m doing right now. Long live the new guard of Warp, pushing Warp’s sounds in new directions.