A Liminal Review: univrs by Alva Noto (October 17th, 2011)

Raster-Noton continues to explore the outer limits of electronic music on this latest offering by the label’s co-owner, Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto. In 2008, his unitxt album turned heads with its radical juxtaposition of heavily processed percussive techno with excoriating white noise, as he took computer data files, such as Excel, Word or Powerpoint documents and converted them into sound. The results were often astonishing, abrasive and sonically extreme.

univrs follows on from the concept behind untixt, expanding the scope to explore the association of rhythmic patterns and melodic units with the universality of language. The Internet and the concordant proliferation of digital information has had a notable effect on how individuals communicate, as associations, friendships, even romances, are conducted without people having to meet; whilst the written word has (d)evolved with the multiplication of technological terms and text speak. This is most overtly explored on ‘uni acronym’, on which frequent Alva Noto collaborator Anne-James Chaton recites 208 three-letter acronyms (“TGV”, “BBC”, “IBM”, etc) in a crisp deadpan, his every enunciation punctuated by Nicolai’s motorik techno beats and shuffling synth loops. Each acronym is both meaningless and loaded with associated thoughts, creating an indistinct narrative simply by virtue of the letters’ associations in the head of the listener.

Musically, like its predecessor, univrs is a dense and slightly forbidding listen, dominated by sharp high frequencies and aggressive rhythmic patterns. As the album evolves, it becomes a hard-hitting wall of highly-processed electronic noise that stretches on and on for 14 tracks and over an hour. It certainly, like a lot of Raster-Noton albums, takes some getting used to. But where unitxt’s use of pure computerised data rendered it pretty much impossible to relate to on anything but a purely conceptual level (“Cool idea…”), there is a lot more going on in the swirling explorations contained on univrs.

Perhaps a key factor is that all 14 tracks were developed from live recordings, which would account for the greater use of fast-paced beats and the dense, homogeneous sound of the album. Tracks like ‘uni c’, ‘uni dia’ and ‘uni deform’ are propelled by thumping rhythm patterns and frenetic melodies that wouldn’t seem too out of place on a mainstream techno release. On ‘uni rec’ and the hefty ‘uni iso’, Nicolai explores subtle temporal and textural shifts, layering glimmers of clear ambient drones over off-kilter pulsations before breaking up the uneasy calm with rampaging buzz-saw effects and uneasy high-frequency keens. Nicolai’s mastery of electronic textures, and the way in which he carves exquisitely-produced pieces out of such a harsh swirl of noises, is second to none.

It can be easy to only approach Alva Noto’s work as a series of intellectual works, or as coldly impressive sonic exercises, but on univrs at least, his abrasive form of abstract techno feels almost perfectly tailored for the dancefloor. Ok, perhaps not in a mainstream club, but still… (minimal techno nights are multiplying in cities like London and Berlin, aftre all). Music is a form of language, after all, a means to bring people together in universal appreciation of sound, and the hard-hitting beats and elastic synth and sequencer wizardry on display here would barely sound out of place sailing out of a DJ’s booth in a club. A special edition of the album will come with a bonus DVD of live footage and a video, as well as a detailed booklet; whilst Nicolai has put on performances and installations around the album’s themes. All of this interactivity enhances the universality of the album’s ambition.

If the music of Alva Noto is centred on the recreation of digital data into musical form, then univrs feels like the moment that data starts interacting with the unpredictability of the human heart and mind. univrs is harsh, powerful and cold, but also intensely rhythmic and elating. Above all, even when ranked alongside other albums on the Raster-Noton roster, it stands out as being boldly adventurous and unique.

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