Rashad Becker is a craftsman first and foremost. Having worked at Berlin-based Dubplates & Mastering for well over 15 years, his CV reads like a best-of list in contemporary experimental music. Founded by Basic Channel as an optimal Kreuzberg studio back in 1995, Dubplates built a reputation for offering the very finest in audio post-production, with several leading practitioners at the controls. Throughout his stretch there, Becker has personally rustled up recordings for Kouhei Matsunga, Pantha du Prince, Kevin Drumm, Giuseppe Ielasi, Florian Hecker, Russell Haswell, Keiji Haino, Sam Shackleton, KTL, Holly Herndon, Richard Bishop, and Evan Caminiti, to name but a few. It almost goes without saying, then, that he also mastered his own debut album, Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol 1, but that wasn’t necessarily a given. One of the most pressing questions concerning the album’s content is its influence: has the resonance of recordings mastered in the past bled through into his own work? Becker takes a communicative approach to each of his projects, and after working with some of the most fascinating musicians of the last decade, the chance that the answer should remain affirmative has made this one of the most anticipated experimental releases of the year.
In an interview with Robert Henke, Becker discusses the amount of emphasis that often rests on an album’s production — the expressive ideas behind the music frequently get overlooked by effects, dubbing, and pitch correction. The argument dictates that it’s not worth worrying about the quality of the tunes too much if there is a deep and textured mastering job to wrap the joint up in afterwards. I would be inclined to take sides with Becker in his assertion that the final product, in this case, will ultimately lack both substance and energy — essential components, which allow the listener to feel as though they are hearing an artistic concept founded on creative principles instead of another hot mess. As the saying goes, “you can’t polish a turd.”
On Notional Species, the artist’s creative vision is bound up in its aesthetic — this is music that borrows from the industrial/electro-acoustic crunk of Eli Keszler and Helm, with whom Becker has previously worked. These inflections are plied with rigorous and intensive effects to fashion a prickly, unsettling atmosphere. The results are extremely isolating and unpredictable, appearing distant in the realm of acoustic and electronic experimentation, while both approaches unite in a kind of dank, uncharted middle ground, where compressed tones and elongated bass curves take on the form of string orchestrations and manipulated fibers. It’s a peculiar combination, because the source is intentionally difficult to place, so one’s immediate reaction is to reach out to the closest-sounding likeness, which in this instance flirts nonchalantly with the bizarre: instead of heavily treated vocal samples, the body of the record feels like cylindrical metal, a hacked-up piece of guttering that’s been adapted as a wind instrument.
What’s interesting is how Becker’s technical craft bolsters the strength of the music as opposed to justifies it. Whereas he defines himself as a technician who sees the benefit in conversing with the artists he works with to explore their visions, he’s working with his own product here. These are ideas that he might have examined with other people, but they are ultimately sounds he has arrived at on his own terms, and the mastering is consequently bound up in the principle idea behind the material. The fact that Becker is tremendously skilled at formulating potent and obscure soundscapes is imperative to the recording, and it shows on playback; upon accepting the strangeness of each offering and the queer quality they possess, you begin to notice the details within them. This is particularly noticeable on a track like “Themes III,” which takes on an incredible number of layers and moods as they shift throughout its tumbling course. “Dances IV” on the other hand is harder, refined, and grounded in repetition, which makes it exceptionally tougher to digest.
What remains is an album that’s well paced, stylistically unique, and that poses more questions about how electronic music should be responded to instead of how it should be consumed. It’s an intriguing experience, one that has been brilliantly executed in the course of its evolution. Where the album falls flat is in its complete denial of an entry point — each piece is menacingly dense and alien, transcending even the harshest bombardment of noise or extreme avant improv. The music provokes a reaction that immediately calls for an exploration of its nature, as opposed to an unfiltered appreciation. But the fact that each section is difficult shouldn’t be perceived as off-putting; it’s still a rewarding listen brimming with curiosity. Becker’s method might not come directly through working with inspirational people, but through discussing artistic objectives and approaching his ideas as a consequence of sharing them. Each track is ornate, nestled in a style that’s abundant and clear, and that brings each composition to the fore alongside Becker’s distinctive knack for mastering — he might be a wizard at post-production, but on Notional Species, it’s the grand idea behind it all that takes center stage.