Sølyst Sølyst

[Bureau B; 2011]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: Krautrock, industrial
Others: Can, Neu!, Cabaret Voltaire

Sølyst is the side project of Thomas Klein, drummer for Kriedler, a band that was one of a crop of German post-rock and folktronica bands from the late 90s, including Tarwater, Schneider TM, and To Rococo Rot (Kreidler sharing a bassist with the latter). At the time, these bands’ version of post-rock seemed like a promising meeting of electronic loops and analogue rock instrumentation, but it now seems more a precursor to The Postal Service than to less wishy-washy, more uncompromising encounters between rock and electronic music like Battles or Justice. In retrospect, Kriedler and other post-rock bands dabbling in electronics appealed mostly as a stepping stone from rock music to more fully-synthesized music. Klein’s bloodless precision evoked the lockstep rhythms of techno drum programming, and his calm accommodation of dense polyrhythms suggested the breakbeat’s multiple levels of repetition, all from behind a familiar rock drumset. Sølyst is at once more minimal and more relatable than the latest efforts from many of these bands. It is definitely a more personal recording: an insular set of repetitious drum beats run through various effects and filigreed with loops and one-finger synth melodies provided by collaborator TG Mauss, and it is not without its pleasures.

Klein describes his solo music as “Tribal Dub Krautrock,” and I can’t really get over how easy it is to hear each of those labels in the music, almost as if they were hyperlinked, text flashing blue as the mind’s ear crosses over them. “Krautrock” is a no-brainer, even if it does seem a little strange for a German band to embrace a lazy critical catch-all from America: Klein’s trance-inducing minimalism has obvious links to Jaki Liebezeit of Can and Klaus Dinger of Neu! Nor do I question the “Dub” label. Delay and echo effects make the drums swirl and ripple on almost every track here. But I can’t get over that word “Tribal.” As far as I can tell, “tribal” music seems to designate music in which percussion is at the forefront, particularly the tom-tom, and particularly when beaten by something other than a drumstick — a branch, tree limb, a hand. On Sølyst, a buzzing synth circles lazily and guitar noises whine in the distance, but this is an album where the drums carry all the melody and meaning. Tuned mallet percussion in early track “Melville” establishes the interest of drums in this percussion-centric album. Most “tribal” perhaps, according to critical discourse, are his polyrhythmic cross-rhythms. Klein is a master of his drumkit, and his drums move with the precision of watch gears, achieving an easy dialogue with electronic loops and riffs, even with the echoing of his own drum strikes.

I like this album. It recalls less the the joyous polyrhythms of Drums of Passion and more the menacing stomp of late-80s industrial, and that’s all right with me. But, and forgive me, what does this have to do with the word “Tribal,” which, if I’m not mistaken, denotes a type of family structure? Can’t we agree that the dictionary definition of “tribal” refers not to some Afro-Cuban rhythm discovered through jazz and the canonization of a few of these compositional techniques via “world music,” but to a social and political form of organization? One that was once imagined by Eurocentric sociologists to precede the modern nation state, to be a more primitive, less-developed, childhood version of our own highly functional nations? In what sense do we as modern listeners put ourselves in the position of these colonial social Darwinists when we hear a particular drumbeat as “tribal?” At that point, we are in an encounter, I guess, with a tribe, in our semiologic imaginations. No one with an MP3 player listening to this album is in a tribe. A tribe is always somewhere else, usually in the global south. Hearing a beat as “tribal” in this way imagines it as a window into our own past, as a less-developed version of our art music. These beats crawled out of the sea and stood upright in order to reach our chin level. There’s the cat eye-shaped irises of the cover — this is naked primitivism. Sølyst’s song titles frequently reference that ocean they crawled out of. Sølyst seeks to dive back underwater, to reverse evolution, to achieve cruising speed in a sort of underwater motorik. But when they get down there, they will discover that the tribal Atlantis has been found already, by futurist dub techno and the Underground Resistance crew, if not earlier.

Don’t get me wrong: The point is not whether “tribal” rhythms are any more authentic to this artist than a set of “tribal” tattoos would be. The eyeballs that compose the constellation on the album’s cover are all blue. I get that. Postmodern culture is rife with inspired juxtapositions and unexpected affinities. If not an authentic encounter with whatever culture was the first to play deep, resonant polyrhythms, Sølyst is at least true to a certain Dusseldorf tradition of the Mensch-Maschine (or man-machine), but this android figure is borrowed from American TV and radio: Afrika Bambaatta said of Kraftwerk that they were so stiff, they were funky, and he drew his Zulu nation imagery not from such an authentic meeting with that culture, but from a dubious Hollywood movie of the same name. In the context of punk music, the so-called tribal beat was also an act of cultural appropriation: Adam Ant appropriated the polyrhythms and textures of the Royal Drummers of Burundi for Adam and the Ants. The sound, however, was stolen from Adam Ant when Malcolm McClaren adopted his rhythm section for Bow Wow Wow. Just as the term “Krautrock” itself is an appellation that can only be applied from the outside, “tribal” is a term that can only be applied to the Other. But the term’s use in music has created a tradition that cannot be said to be purely racist, and if it is inauthentic, it is no more so than every other genre of music. Below the choppy surface of “Tribal Dub Krautrock,” as with any musical genre, the eyes floating in the primordial soup are never, contrary to appearances, all the same color.

Links: Sølyst - Bureau B

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