The Field The Follower

[Kompakt; 2016]

Styles: ambient techno, extra-canonical yearning, etiological body music
Others: Fennesz, Container, The Field

“A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
– Walker Percy

Suspiciously more so than most minimalists, Axel Willner is often accused of being too formulaic. Accolades of his work consider his idiosyncratic style of minimal techno a beacon of consistency amidst an ever-coagulating clusterfuck of aesthetic mush. Detractors, however, are tired of its formalism, still waiting for what happened after we went sublime.

Personally, I’ve been locked into this shit ever since I first heard it, yet I could never really put into words what makes Willner’s music so transcendent beyond that it evokes that feeling of deviating from this plane of existence and into some other. Perhaps Willner has always been a bit too on point with his signposting for our own good, locating sublimity and serenity in repetition through his unambiguous record titles (From Here We Go Sublime, Yesterday and Today, Looping State of Mind) and unified design scheme. His records have always seemed like instruction manuals for enjoying them, yet navigating their remarkably diverse soundscapes without focusing on these blatant symbols has always been a more fruitful — if not entirely illuminating — way of interacting with them. It should be noted then that his latest two records have noticeably inverted this paradigm that Willner has created; Cupid’s Head was all hardware presented in negative, Willner’s identifying tag emblazoned in black on a dark grey background instead of an off-white one.

And now this time around, we’re faced with a monolith of blackness, those typical identifiers (THE FiELD; [ALBUM TiTLE]; KOMPAKT) scrawled in sharp white. Despite only a slight visual change, something seems (even more) different now (at least since Cupid’s Head), and I think Willner’s accentuating this difference purposefully; if we neglected Willner’s progression as an artist before, he’s made damn sure this time around that we begin this new journey enveloped in darkness. At its outset, we’ve been dropped into what feels like that same groove, but where are we headed this time? Up? Out? Beneath? Around? Outside of? Where did we think we were going before? Was it really always THAT similar of a trip? And why have we always assumed that we’ll keep ending up where we started once it ends?

The Follower doesn’t answer any of these questions; it barely even asks them. But if Willner has ever stared right into our eyes, his own bulging bulbs screaming, “REALLY?!?!?!” it has never been more obvious. Its pristine, persistent club beats integrated with squelching feedback tips off that maybe these themes of repetition and memory we’ve been gleaning from his loops since Sublime really aren’t all that simple (or at least not univocal). Maybe that trajectory we thought we were on wasn’t all that straight after all. Maybe what we needed was just a hint of hissing doubt so that we could start interrogating our own habits, rituals, and aspirations. Whether Willner intended it or not, The Follower feels like a lens for examining our own persistence in creating and finding perfection in a world that we know is flawed.

Willner knows that music can transform flaws and fragments into fantastic physiological experiences, and he’s been doing it masterfully for years, but he also knows that getting there is tricky and requires patience. Chasing these elusive and arbitrary moments of rapture that happen when you repeat phrases in certain ways (like when you say a word so many times that it loses its meaning but still sounds cool) has been Willner’s main mission for his entire career, but with The Follower, he’s still stirring up our collective memories of what sounds dope while also pointing out how flimsy universal models of/for perfection can be. On opener “The Follower,” he does this by delaying release, dragging out a persistent 4/4 beat and a dissonant phrase for minutes before introducing a more melodic progression along with cathartic hawk-like screeches. Much of The Follower feels grounded in familiar forms that Willner has explored in different ways throughout his career, but there’s a hint of melancholia and nostalgia here as well that casts a shadow on his sunnier work. “Monte Verita” sounds yearning, like its performance is an attempt at reenacting a bygone memory that can’t be accessed through other means. Fourteen-minute closer “Reflecting Lights” is The Follower in microcosm, twisting our fond, backward-looking smiles into regretful trembles back into hopeful beams as we think back on how our habits have shaped us, for better or for worse.

The Follower is itself a reflection as well as a reenactment of our proudest moments, trapped in amber, but it is also a reflection on our most base proclivities for repeating behaviors that we know won’t change anything. It is a reenactment of these behaviors as well as a eulogy for everything that has perished as a result of our repetitive resistance. Most importantly though, it is an artifact of immense beauty, one that could only have been created by ignoring its own cautions and embracing a better world.

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