Nothing leaves one more ill-prepared to approach an album from a critical standpoint than the cursory knowledge that the artist in question is a quartet of percussionists — from New York City, no less. Are we in for a series of cerebral performance art oddities, for instance? Random, free-form noise? Rhythmic, tribal percussion too heavy on the drums and too light on the melody? Admittedly, So Percussion are something of a conundrum. Amid the Noise is the band's third release on Cantaloupe Music, the label founded by the avant-garde collective Bang on a Can. The record's 12 understated tracks of minimalist ambient electronic music are closer to Squarepusher or Aphex Twin than the ensemble's percussion pedigree might lead one to expect. In other words, Amid the Noise is far from four guys hammering away on garbage can lids and plastic tubs; conversely, the record is similarly far removed from ethnic drumming such as Taiko, Djembe, or something in the realm of neo-tribalism.
Wintry and atmospheric, replete with icy keyboards and sterile, crystalline programming, these tracks are executed with an almost clinical precision. Tracks like "Work Slow Life" are distant cousins to the IDM/drum & bass scene, but are altogether too intricate and epic to be tagged with that now-somewhat-pejorative label. Chimes, glockenspiel, toy piano, and the like almost align So Percussion with the current Icelandic indie electronic crowd. Artists such as Müm and Björk (particularly on her 2001 Matmos-produced release, Vespertine) spring to mind. The Matmos connection is to perhaps be expected, since So Percussion are in fact currently touring with the indie electronic duo. Like much of the work of many of the above artists, many of the tracks on Amid the Noise are cocooned in an aura of childlike simplicity and fairy-tale charm: at times the album, as on the elaborately complex "September," sounds like an attic full of toys that have been magically animated, like something out of a Jan Svankmajer film. Visual and appealing, on headphones these pieces unfold in a manner not unlike your typical Sigur Rós video.
Much more than mere contemporary electronic music, So Percussion's recordings are closely allied with modern composition. So Percussion also share a tenuous connection to minimalist composer Steve Reich, as their second album was a recording of Reich's composition "Drumming." Many of the pieces here bear the indelible influence of Reich's percussion-oriented compositional style. In fact, the track "Go," in particular, reminded this reviewer of Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians." Despite the clicks, glitches, and pops that serve as accompaniment to these pieces, deeper listening reveals an underlying classical aesthetic that elevates these tracks far above the album's logical pigeonholes. And though Amid the Noise may suffer from a substantial dearth of melodicism, the snatches of melody inherent in these 12 tracks are both Spartan and tasteful. So Percussion's tracks range from the very minimal ("Old") to dense washes of sound ("Fire Escapes"). Furthermore, the production and engineering on Amid the Noise are impeccable. The dense, compressed post rock atmospherics of "What the Hell" recall much of the output of Tortoise; and like Tortoise, along with Steve Reich, So Percussion demonstrate the value of repetition without tedium.
3. Work Slow Life
7. What the Hell
9. Fire Escapes