When Chinese electronic duo FM3 released The Buddha Machine last fall, they encouraged an international audience to let sound slip into the background and massage the subconscious. A tiny speaker box only a little bigger than an iPod, The Buddha Machine contains nine programmed loops of pulsing ambient drift, and unlike, say, a cut from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, a track from FM3’s device doesn’t require that its listener push the “repeat” button to enjoy it ad infinitum. That’s right: The Buddha Machine will play music forever, or at least until you turn it off. A massive success, the box’s first pressing sold out almost immediately, and for understandable reasons: endless sound is a powerful fantasy for many a music nerd. Plus, if you’re the type who likes to lie on your back, gaze at the ceiling, and contemplate eternity, a Buddha Machine is a much classier coffee table adornment than a skull bong.
Turns out that FM3’s albums are as compelling as their more conceptual creations, as this collaboration with rock drummer Dou Wei attests. Those of us who have experienced the Buddha Machine will no doubt hear parallels to its emissions in the Basinski-tinged wave fields at Hou Guan Yin’s base. Folks who enjoy indietronic glitch-pop will also feel right at home: live instrumentation tidbits like reverb’d melodica and dewdrop piano plinks get reprocessed in the album’s best tracks. Wei’s contributions suggest Chicago post-rock, as his rhythms are groovy, hypnotic, and understated. In other words, this is competent instrumental almost-pop for a broad audience.
The stillborn discourse on the natural that the album engages, however, detracts from its songs’ innate likeability. Like so many electroacoustic works, Hou Guan Yin inserts field recordings of “natural” occurrences, like frogs croaking, into postmodern, post-human settings, and then does the reverse, imitating organic life with electronics. There are a number of interpretations of the group’s relationship with the pastoral world – manmade-is-natural-too, digital-is-the-new-natural, nature-ain’t-so-hard-to-reproduce, gee-life-sure-is-beautiful, outdoor-tranquility-but-hey-I-don’t-need-bugspray, etc. But in a world where MySpace, Facebook, and other forms of online community have encouraged most of the population to establish identities in cyberspace, nature-meets-technology conversations have to raise more provoking questions than FM3’s does. For the most part, people have begun to view their online personas as extensions of their offline selves – folks are willing to divulge their religious views, post wedding pictures, even place their phone numbers on Facebook. We’re letting our guards down, telling everyone that our interests are actually cars, coffee, and college football instead of “boobz” or whatever joke response seemed appropriate when we opened our Facebook accounts. We aren’t going online because we lack social networks in the “real world,” but because we want to preserve and extend our flesh-and-blood relationships. And whether FM3 are arguing that technology is ruining nature or that both forms are interrelated, their technique still suggests that the two concepts are a binary, a duality in need of resolution. And when an artist has shown as strong a commitment to engaging culture, to conversing with the world outside the stereo as these gentlemen have, such a reduction comes as quite a surprise.