In its big bang–like outward expansion, microhouse (that predominantly German strain of house music that privileges idiosyncratically intricate grooves, scintillating textures, and delicate atmospherics) faces a few methodological hurdles, chief among them being, um, where's the micro? As pointillist minimalism is gradually abandoned, and the points of distinction between microhouse and other styles (straight house, straight techno, straight pop) shrink to subtle nuances, will this become another empty term, conferred upon dance records simply by dint of being released on the "right" record label? Or is there life in the concept yet?
The creative arc of Finnish producer Vladislav Delay's Luomo project might serve as a case in point. On his 2000 debut, Vocalcity, Luomo's alternate-universe model of house reconstituted the style's simple pulse-groove as a dense, sticky profusion of intermeshing percussion snaps and pops, syrupy dub echoes, and an array of soft-focus sonics. The result was an elaborate simulacrum of house that chose endless labyrinths of unquenched desire over straightforward satisfaction, nerve-tickling foreplay rather than (and maybe better than) the final climax.
Casting off the fear of obviousness that has defined microhouse's (and his own) staple sound, Luomo's new The Present Lover (Ultra) finds Delay rejecting the house-as-foreplay equation for a more tangible and heated sort of physical engagement. In doing so, he simplifies the occasionally complex relationship to house and pop that defined Vocalcity—the kick drums really thud, the vocals are more up front and often more obviously tuneful, the choruses are frequently huge. This switch to a more conventional and immediate approach to house might strike some fans as disappointingly crude and generic, the equivalent of a master calligrapher commissioning a pink neon sign for his shop window.
But Delay hasn't abandoned his craft so much as decentered it: The Present Lover flattens out Vocalcity's luxuriant depth and topological complexity, choosing instead a shimmering depthlessness. The grooves embody a lustrous, crystalline superficiality, whose very blankness encourages listeners to more energetically project their own fears and desires onto them. Largely abandoning the labyrinthine twists and turns of Vocalcity's productions, The Present Lover wholeheartedly embraces disco's armory of weapons: repetition, riffs, refrains, and the narrative relationship between a diva's heartfelt sigh and the tragic and triumphant arrangements that, by turns, support it. The Present Lover is in love with house as house, revelling in the style's capacity for unbridled sexuality and cathartic release. In doing so, it loses something else in turn—the absences that made Vocalcity so enigmatic and mysterious. But the trade-off is fair; The Present Lover equals its predecessor's charm.
The surprising smoothness of these new productions represents a shift rather than a reduction of Luomo's intricate and unpredictable production style, which here is blended seamlessly with the most basic functions of the disco groove in order to frame the latter in the most dazzlingly fresh-seeming light. Each snare rattle or hi-hat hiss is lovingly sculpted by a multitude of barely perceptible tics and smudges, so that the grooves shimmer and flare, their seeming equilibrium the careful result of an intensely compressed molecular activity that constantly threatens to rupture the surface of the music. It's the threat rather than the event itself that appeals—the album's one genuinely weak moment is its re-creation of Luomo's former hit "Tessio," where the gulf between the rough-hewn bass line and the overstated deployment of glitches and mistakes upsets the album's balance between pop structure and biological anarchy, making you long for the ghostly perfection of the original.
What characterizes the best work here is a sort of propulsive tranquilness, a sense of over-satiation that feels like swimming in a flotation tank of endorphins. But Delay is too romantic to simply reproduce house's most ecstatic qualities, and there's a strong undercurrent of melancholy that permeates the album's best moments—the achingly lovelorn title track, the dreamlike mysticism of "Could Be Like This," and the awkward love letter of "What Good." Love, for Luomo, is never a half-measure, and the promise of satisfaction always brings with it the threat of dissolution of the self; the aching quietude of these songs points to a state of being burned out by desire, drowned in feeling.
Fittingly his divas, male and female, are hopelessly devoted martyrs, communicating but never receiving, never transcending their own diva status, transfixing the listener in their hungry gaze. "I'll try to stand with you together," one affirms on the anthemic closer, "Shelter," expecting nothing in return but the joy of giving love. The title track's glistening, chimerical synthesized guitar solo sounds chillingly hollow, a void into which the song's hero pours his promises of eternity. The stuttering, frustrated letter writer of "What Good" finds either his secret thoughts or his answer in an incongruently uplifting chorus of female vamps replying, "What good is it to talk you?" The album's most unabashedly sugary moment (employing enormous jet streams of interstellar disco synthesizers), this harsh rejoinder signifies the light/dark duality that lies at the heart of all house music, the simultaneous presence of desire and frustration, physical contact and spiritual emptiness.
Luomo's insistence on emotional excess and his constant flirtation with rapture demand a fully committed listener. Right now only Basement Jaxx produce grooves as endlessly involving as these, but where the Jaxx are engaged in a constant flight from house toward a fantasyland of polystylistic perversity, Luomo plunges toward house's center, seeking a blissful heat death in its moist, pulsing core. In doing so, he suggests a radical new take on "microhouse"—one less bound up in sonic experimentalism, that instead privileges a different sort of risk taking. As with the best moments of Daft Punk's Discovery, The Present Lover challenges our understandings of what house can mean to us. There's no hair-metal guitar here, though; just the endless pulse, the ebb and flow of our own desires singing back to us.
Luomo plays Chop Suey with Bruno Pronsato and Codebase at 9 p.m. Wed., March 17. $10.