It’s time for some Russian stereotyping. It’s time for plucking COH (a.k.a. Russian-born Ivan Pavlov) out of his own fluid individuality and raising him as a flag for every cautionary, self-congratulatory, and regulative hypocrisy the word “Russia” conveniently repackages for us Western saints. He’s been stitching together brutalist latticeworks of protocol electronica and post-techno since the very late 90s, and over the course of albums that have taken in such processed grinds as debut Enter Tinnitus and 2011’s appropriately-named IIRON, his music has often lent itself to interpretations of post-Soviet austerity and authoritarianism, to visions of a nation where everyone must toe the Putin line and where everything is frigid and inescapable. And even though TO BEAT falls into that category of COH players without any overt winks of political specificity (in contrast to IIRON’s “Red Square,” “War End War,” and “Fist of Glory”), the faceless abstraction of its hardened sine curves and high-frequency beats seem to be generalizing the historically-situated experience of Russian totalitarian control and coercion onto a timeless global plane.
So while its methods and operational concept reach a high level of technicality, involving the modulation of diffuse soundwaves into hard-edged beats via programmed sleights of frequency and wavelength, Pavlov’s intent for these sequenced, angular concourses is assuredly symbolic. Tracks like “Meguro 10-6” and “ungear moi,” incorporating flashing, bit-grained circuits of rhythm, interloop around their blippy tracks as if on rails, never missing a note or a beat, never deviating from their predetermined courses for even a millisecond. “Bond Number” vibrates electronically to an inhumanly regular pulse, overlapping its mechanistically throbbing bass with scheduled enumerations and metallic algorithms, and in its grid-like wake, the listener can’t help but sink with the feeling that what they’re hearing is the musical companion to their own technologically, politically, and nationalistically pre-determined self, or at least to Pavlov’s own self, to his false existence as the embodiment of the social formulae — the practices, habits, traditions, stipulations, and procedures — that both condition and constitute every facet of his supposedly private being.
This possibility emerges more sharply as TO BEAT unfolds. The robotically glinting “Moonviewhigh” and the upwardly scaling chime-arrays of “Helicon” are — despite their alleged status as the creation of a particular subjectivity with his own transcendent autonomy — both in fact expressions of the limits and functionality of COH’s technology, or more specifically, mere activations and rearrangements of the tightly-delimited components (i.e., musemes) such a technology potentiates through its enclosed circuitry. With the inevitable accelerations and channeled data-riffs of “Moonviewhigh,” it’s almost impossible not to be reminded of the kind of antipathy that welcomed the first popular emergences of electronic music in the 1970s and 80s, of the disgust at musicians who appeared to be doing little more than pressing buttons and serving as the emasculated activators of machine-logic (cf. Kraftwerk’s Computer World). And what was most troubling about this development and also COH’s music is that they both question the very notion of “creativity,” precipitating suspicions that the latter isn’t so much a term for the novation of something unprecedented or something that advances us out of ourselves as it is a depressingly humble repositioning of oneself within the confines of the possible. Put differently, creativity is simply our way of learning and relearning what the conditions of our existence permit us to do.
And in the context of Ivan Pavlov and his homeland, this stark absolutism of TO BEAT frames a Russia where nothing is done that hasn’t already been authorized or habituated in advance, but because the album has been shorn of pretty much every specific token or indicator of the Federation, this conception could arguably be extended beyond Eurasian borders. The thickening wavelets and digitized patterings of “eena ferroix” house nothing accidental, nothing out of place or that might offer some individuating anomaly, and with its sterilized ripples, there prevails an impression of a sexless, will-less, and homogenized domain, where those without power subsist only as the excretions of those with power. Of course, the actual reality of Russia is much subtler and more complicated than this, but even with the LP’s premise of manipulating the Hertz-count of the underlying sinusoids to create the illusion of rhythms, beats, and harmonic phrases — of the musical correlates of personality and individuality — this perception is reinforced, resulting in the parallel conviction that laws and customs are manipulated to create the illusion of human beings with free will and originality.
This long-tarnished concept is exposed for what it’s worth during closer “BEAT TO WAVE,” where the initial processions of transistor fuzzing and LED blinking gradually subside into an expanding hum that reveals itself as the substance that had been moving them all along. However, for all its conceptual integrity, TO BEAT suffers from one flaw that blocks an unreserved recommendation. Its all-consuming adherence to tightly-mapped contours leaves it with a coldness and predictability that prevents a higher degree of engagement on the part of the listener, which in turn prevents it from being a great album as opposed to a passably good one. This is quite ironic really, since everything said up until now would imply that it cleaves flawlessly to the precepts and pre-sets it reproduces over the 43 minutes of its curated automation. But it neglected one paradoxical yet no less important principle (if only for these ears), which is that music and art become all the more exciting the more they’re infiltrated by accidents, transgressions, and imperfections. Then again, maybe this oversight is its own form of deviation.