Is It Too Early for the First Great Post-Rave Album of the Century?

Axel Willner has spun a golden, hypnotic web of new music from the threads of yesteryear's pop songs.

In late June, roughly 4,000 miles away from Axel Willner's Stockholm, Rep. Mike Doyle sat down with a constituent, Pittsburgh-based musical "pirate" Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk), to discuss copyright concerns. He may have been the first politician to take seriously the postmodern methods of many of electronic music's most interesting producers—likening Gillis' expert ability to blend multiple pop songs to Paul McCartney's theft of a Chuck Berry bass line—and give cultural credit to musicians whose appropriations become exciting new art.

While the business of an American congressman hardly affects producer Willner an ocean away, this incident signals a shift in how people are considering music, which could cause a butterfly effect of industry open-mindedness. As the Field, Willner has spun a golden, hypnotic web of new music from the threads of yesteryear's pop songs—if you can figure out which they are. After he submitted a demo tape to Cologne's inimitable ambient/techno label Kompakt (yeah, that method still works), Willner's first 12-inch appeared in 2005, followed by last year's Sun & Ice EP, which rippled through the global music underground like an electric eel. The subsequent full length, From Here We Go Sublime, was released this March to probably more acclaim than any album as unusual—even indie bastion Pitchfork gave it a 9.0 rating. "I could never expect anything like this at all," says Willner of the critical response.

He's still employed by the Systembolaget (Sweden's government-owned liquor stores), and had to work it out with his boss before accepting a near-headlining slot at this summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, according to Pitchfork Editor in Chief Ryan Schreiber. Willner says he isn't recognized as a local celebrity in Stockholm and rarely hears himself on the radio. Here, KEXP has put Sublime into regular rotation, with interesting results. Seemingly because of the songs' abrupt bookends, DJs often halt their sets to announce and explain a Field song, unsure of how to segue it. The album's 10 tracks range from four to 10 minutes long. Each is a riff on a song from Willner's past, from the Flamingo's "I Only Have Eyes for You" (the title track) to Kate Bush's "Under Ice" ("Over the Ice"). Willner locates an element or three in the original song and transforms them into a continuous series of loops and edits that bury the original, creating hazy, trancelike meditations out of material as comfortingly familiar as a baby blanket. They're manipulated on fairly ancient editing software and mixed live, allowing quirks and mistakes to stay in. Hints to the songs' origins are in their re-worked titles, and moments such as the four-second vocal snippet in "Everyday" that lets you know it's Fleetwood Mac (previously "Everywhere").

"It always sounds to me like someone bumped the turntable and there's some pop single that's just skipping back on its peak moment," says Schreiber, who considers Sublime one of his favorite electronic albums of the decade. Playing it during prime time is an adventurous move for KEXP, which is sponsoring the Field's appearance at this month's Broken Disco party at Chop Suey.

"I think the indie scene wouldn't like it, though it seems that a lot of people do," says Willner. "But there are no parallels to rock and roll. There's no chorus, verse—nothing at all. Perhaps it's because the samples that I use are often from artists, so they can understand it on another level."

Taken as a whole, Sublime is time-consuming, and difficult if you're attached to traditional song structures. It makes sense that people would warm to it on a subconscious level, maybe not even sure why they like it until the last repetition of, say, "A Paw in My Face" dies out, revealing itself to be a fragment of Lionel Richie's "Hello." The soft-rock strains of that guitar chord trigger a psychological "aha" moment, a heady nostalgia that sustains itself throughout the new, indecipherable song. It's as easy to lose yourself in the calmly propulsive "The Deal" and "Good Things End," which recall ambient artists like Miwon and Gas (Kompakt co-owner Wolfgang Voigt), as in the insistent thump and acid squiggle of "The Little Heart Beats So Fast." I want to call Sublime, which is caught in a beautifully weird netherworld between AM Gold and straight-up trance, the first great post-rave album of the century. In that Pitchfork review, former SW contributor Jess Harvell explains why it makes me crave drugs: "There's an often anthemic bigness to Willner's little sounds, a certain shameless bombastic quality to the way he deploys his loops and builds his arpeggios."

Having worked under a variety of monikers in the past ("Each connected to a change of equipment or how I make the music at that point"), Willner is focusing now on the Field, and plans to introduce more acoustic elements like guitar into his future productions. So far, like Gillis, he hasn't found an oldie-but-goodie that's too sacred to repurpose, albeit in a different way. Willner's clever homages seem heartfelt, each as touching and legitimate as its source.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow