Around this time of the year a slight sense of panic invades my mind. While I’m perfectly aware of how silly and arbitrary top-ten lists are, there’s always a part of me that's dedicated to doing it right: thinking hard, comparing, and remembering, as if picking my ten favorite (or, even funnier, "best") albums of the year will actually mean something.
One thing that occupies much of time each December, then, is catching up on albums I missed, or barely listened to. Since I’m the midst of that process it seems obvious to share some thoughts, especially because the Reader's forthcoming best-of feature will have only top-five lists, leaving out a lot of good albums.
The other day Jim “Marlon” Magas commented on my brief Clipse post, noting that the austere sound of the album made him feel “almost like it was produced by Ryoji Ikeda.” Ikeda is a dynamic, highly minimalist Japanese electronic-music composer who reduces his sonic building blocks down to a simple synthetic tone. When people talk about music as ones and zeroes, this should be what they’re referencing. He’s been turning out thrilling music for over a decade now, translating binary code into rhythmically audacious, wonderfully tactile music that doesn’t suffer at all from academic mumbo jumbo.
Last December he released his first album in three years, but since it was issued on a German label and took a few months to make it over to these shores I’m logging it as a 2006 release. Dataplex features Ikeda’s tell-tale sounds: high-frequency sine waves (your dog might be whining), tinny electronic pings, floor-rumbling bass tones, white-noise blasts, industrial hums, etc. According to Ikeda’s Web site, this album is “the first musical composition in the datamatics series—a new body of work across various media that uses data as both its material and its theme." While Ikeda is hardly the first composer to translate digital data in sound—and with this kind of music it doesn’t strike me as a very interesting concept—the structural arrangement of the 20 pieces transcends that gambit. The disc opens with a bunch of short pieces that expose the raw data sounds, then graduates to lengthier pieces that reveal the composer’s more deliberate rhythmic ideas—where original constructions are endlessly and methodically permutated—and sonic layering. It’s still icy, ultra-precise stuff, and melody has no place in it, but Dataplex is as good as anything Ikeda has done.