Baja Maps / Systemalheur

[Stilll; 2007]

Styles: post-rock, post-jazz, {salade mixte} of electronics and field recordings
Others: Radiobugs, HiM, The Books, Tortoise, This is Your Captain Speaking

This record’s greatest charms and challenges come with the fact that it is so freaking unwieldy. For all those who lament the commodification of “indie” music and its attendant reduction to sunny/rainy pop rock, Maps/Systemalheur will serve as welcome refreshment. It crosses varied terrain, focusing more on exploratory mood than conventional songcraft, without ever trespassing into the more-n-more-hip domain of noise. It’s hard to tell how much of this album was written and how much was improvised. Daniel Vujanic’s collective seems to have emptied its closets of every instrument they’ve played since the high school band (do they have those in Germany?) and given each at least a solo’s worth of attention, all before spending copious hours in front of the machines that make the sounds swim, sparkle, and sink so wonderfully through the channels of the headphones. Although chopped up into 15 tracks, the album is designed to be heard as two long pieces: Maps, a 40 minute post-rock excursion; and Systemalheur, the half-hour appendix, which includes chillier forays into minimal electro, jazz, and found sound.

For a reviewer more used to tackling track-based material, these broad, amorphous suites are difficult to critique. I’ve found it’s best to approach this as a record of atmospheres rather than objects, movements rather than statements. Don’t expect, however, to be able to pin it down as a mood piece that sustains a discrete affective range throughout (i.e., a bright or melancholy or violent or pensive album). Nor is it a record that can be identified by frequent, frenetic shifts (à la the childlike energy of The Books’ early material. Vujanic has way more patience). It seems to model itself after (perhaps) the imagination of a lounging philosopher/cartographer, someone who looks at objects and landscapes and feels pulled to explore and name while remaining conscious of the power, danger, and frailty of classifications; this heuristic observer is a figure who is also content to plant stakes around her own (intellectual) property. That property in this case is a jazzy take on post-rock which sprouts, at various moments, damaged orchestral interludes, gently crawling electronic roots, and small colonies of field recordings. If we take the title as a clue to Vujanic’s intentions, I wager that the record has at least something to do with the desire to depict (land, people, the human mind) and the difficulties that desire engenders. Maps addresses the process of depiction, and Systemalheur (a quasi-French neologism which could mean “unhappiness with systems”) tackles the futility or distress that can plague such a project. This is just one interpretation (and if it’s “correct,” it means that there should be many other valid ones: the album itself is a territory that rebuffs rigid systematization).

Thus, in the case of Maps, a rating seems almost completely irrelevant, even antithetical to the very nature of the project. I could see myself listening to it every day or never spinning it again. It’s a work that’s somehow entirely friendly and sincerely detached all at once. It’s pretty, twisting, and curiously impalpable, like a ball of feathers. (And, pssst, it’s only a debut). If the indie rock just isn’t getting it done for you anymore, Baja’s enveloping, intangible compositions may be just the guide you need to more engaging musical territory.

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