Stories Part Five
2001 Ritornell CD

Track Listing:
1. nice things to file away FOREVER!
2. which serve the purpose not only
3. most of the holiday spent in the bathroom
4. when i was eight years old
5. (guest one and six make me want to sleep)|
6. love brother (of the parent's house)
7. memories of brown bucket
8. malemachine = slightly drunk (tipsy)
9. yes sir can I improvise?
10. objects with shiny surfaces
11. all drummers shiver
12. we sure could do with some help



I'm starting to face the fact that I have tinnitus. So far, it's proven to be a pretty mild case-- I only notice the ringing during near-silence-- but I decided it would be a good idea to take some precautions to avoid further damage. I bought several pairs of ear plugs (at the ridiculous price of $15/pair) that claim to "evenly distribute the dampening of sound across the frequency spectrum." I even schedule silence breaks to give my throbbing eardrums a proper rest. One good thing has come out of this, though: the police have stopped coming to my house about noise complaints.

I've been anticipating the latest full-length from the Iceland born-and-bred trio Stilluppsteypa since last year's subtly melodic EP, Not a Laughing Matter, but Rather a Matter of Laughs. When I received Stories Part Five -- recently released on Mille Plateaux's Ritornell imprint -- I experienced quite a scare: I feared my condition had dramatically worsened. The tremolo clicks and phase drones of the opening track, "Nice Things to File Away FOREVER!," caught me off-guard. While not quite as discomforting as my aural ailment, the song's electronics are sublimated to the point that the sound coming from the speakers approaches ubiquity (not unlike tinnitus). "Nice Things" approaches ten minutes as collapsing raygun pulses and discordant static buzz at high pitches, yet synthesis is never blatant.

As the record drones on, a pattern emerges: minimalist glitch tendencies with glimpses of beat-keeping allow the synth's atmospheric delay lines to seep through to the fore. Stilluppsteypa avoid the contemporary construct of "intelligence" in electronic music by keeping their organic explorations to the role of sound itself. Melody feels incidental, but hardly contrived; percussion is sparse and precise, but strangely warm, even in its digital synthesis. Static hums are prevalent, but they function as integral rather than ornamental. And though it resembles a rusted metal shed, there's a purveyed ambiance here that's as intriguing as it is unsettling. It's often headache-inducing, too, if listened to for extended periods of time.

Steady rhythmic patterns are only present on half of these twelve tracks, but when they are, they permeate unchanged. Of course, the patterns used are anything but conventional. "Love Brother (of the Parent's House)" pulses and clicks in a bumbling 9/8 time, and the brief set closer, "We Sure Could Do With Some Help," is something like an odd samba, which is a bizarre considering that the rest of the album is almost completely undanceable. "All Drummers Shiver" locks into a filtered, high-speed gallop-- accompanied by swells of drone and hiss-- which fades into the dirty squeaks of "Some Help."

With Stories Part Five, Stilluppsteypa have created an organic aural space from the inorganic. They play the studio like an instrument, trading in notes and structure for circularity, clicks, and drones that surge with a deranged sense of life. In fact, I was listening to the album outside while taking a noonday stroll and was overcome with a strange sense of deconstruction in the natural environment. And this would be Stilluppsteypa's gimmick if all groups had to have one: they seem to invert the natural and the inorganic. - Christopher F. Schiel, November 19th, 2001

Bad Subjects

In 1930 Walter Benjamin wrote"[W]hat characterizes the run-of-the-mill reviewing industry is its unrestrained indulgence in its own reactions…and its pretense that an aesthetics still exists, whereas there has long been none. In truth, the starting point of criticism must be the perception that aesthetic criteria are in all cases completely devalued."

This is very much the case for contemporary electronic music reviews, where there are few if any available charted aesthetics for reference. Technical analysis, frequently preferred by the artists, has little to say to non-initiates. Then there is the rambling, pretentious theory ramblings of Mille Plateaux owner Achim Szepanski and kindred sorts who attempt half-baked syntheses of digital music criticism with Deleuze and Guattari, producing glorious laugh sentences like "Clicks and cuts are conjunctions as permanent ecstasy and…and…and…they refer to something else. Their medial implication consists of permanent ability to be connected." This is no more than a provincial and self-marginalizing attempt to impress with linguistic legerdemain, not one that cares to speak to folks.

Comparison is yet another descriptive mode, but one that in short order grows very limiting. I might write that in terms of its relationship to rhythm and drive that this new Stilluppsteypa album, for instance, much more closely resembles an Errol Garner side of electronica rather than the hard-blowing Dizzy Gillespie end. This is an indicative approach, but it relies overmuch on the accessibility of its reference and the cultural vocabulary employed.

Comparison here does little. Like music that has intrinsic cause for interest, this album resists adjectival reductions. Part of Stilluppsteypa's positive aesthetic virtue lies in thwarting easy description or categorization. As Benjamin observed and the inapplicability of precedent and comparison emphasize, an aesthetic no longer exists and must be reinvented. The conceptual vocabulary that surrounds Stilluppsteypa's music is still as much in development as this musical aesthetic itself.

Stilluppsteypa is a group of ex-pat Icelandic experimentalists more interested in exploring their own ideas of quiet composition than they are interested in excited sonic assaults. They have been migrating between electronic music studios in northern Europe for years now, working with a lengthy list of fellow experimental artists like the legendary Nurse with Wound and the equally well-regarded Hafler Trio. Since 1992 this three-man group has produced eighteen releases. Stories Part Five is their second release on Mille Plateaux's Ritornell imprint, providing much better music than Mille Plateaux's recent release of Geoff White's boringly polite Questions and Comments record.

While the music is neither stiffly cerebral nor aethereal abstraction, Stilluppsteypa's electronic chamber music needs a couple of meditative listenings to absorb its minimalist effects. Their compositions often approach the status of sound artifacts more than compositions per se. It is production that contends against simplified understandings or technique-based reductionism. The laptop rock generation's methodology of sequencing looped sound snippets disappears beneath the surface of an accomplished acoustic mood, a sign of Stilluppsteypa's skill. In their best work, a sound-object emerges into brief existence and then abruptly ends. Sitting in the midst of fixed attention to that sound-object, there is a pang of abandonment when the composition finishes and disappears in mid-air.

"Objects with Shiny Surfaces," a rather brief piece late in the album, exemplifies this determined attempt to capture an image-idea and bring the exercise to an end once the sound-object has been defined. In this effort at expressive elaboration, there is an inherent alienation from music-as-commodity. No one will be buying a Stilluppsteypa album for the bouncy beat and catchy tune. Only one track on Stories, "All the Drums Shiver," even remotely approaches danceability. Where an aesthetic adopts a conscious distance from the market, that anti-market character pervades the music. Mass commodification is the border that marks out other musical genres: indefineability means unsaleability.

Exemplifying this resistance to commodifiability, a mid-album track like "Guest One and Six Make Me Want to Sleep" sweeps back and forth with nothing but scratch noise. Such scratchy backgrounds often feature in Stilluppsteypa's compositions, the aural equivalent of 1960s Super-8 scratch films that signified the emergence of an alternative aesthetic. Similarly, indefinite and searching noise effects here serve as compositional preludes. One of these works, "Malemachine," for instance, achieves a mysterious evening effect that emerges into a rounded, full-volume scene. A seeming bell chord tolls in the background as an underwash of granular sound carries the arrangement to a finish. The scratchiness smoothes out repeatedly through the album's compositions, as though to achieve a rich and symphonic note.

This reach towards a certain grandness is especially noticeable in the "Yes Sir Can I Improvise," which concludes with a lengthy sound wave generation. A track like "Memories of Brown Bucket" is a persistent wave-sound and artifact of looped composition, one that by force of repetition draws listeners into its seemingly hollow minimalist interior architecture to 'listen outwards.' Stilluppsteypa wants much more than to manipulate sound; they clearly want to arrange a fresh relationship between listeners and a new architecture of sound. - Joe Lockard, Monday, September 10, 2001

Needle Drops

Stilluppsteypa are an Icelandic trio (though they spend most of their time in mainland Europe now), known for their fairly uncategorizable take on sound, noise and texture. That they've worked with the Hafler Trio, Nurse With Wound, Zoviet*France and Stock, Hausen and Walkman should give you some indication of their inclinations. Stories Part Five is a bizarre, hard-to-grasp, and totally engrossing listen, incorporating fuzzed drone, short-wave relay, buried rhythms, and stolen tones. If Alva Noto's latest release speaks to microsound's growing pains, and Geoff White's illustrates techno's reluctance to leave its adolescence behind, Stilluppsteypa's record is a document perfectly suited for the present moment, precisely because it seems so open. There is no recognizable style here (and I have no doubt that this, in time, will become its own style). There is no authorial signature, a fact at odds with the rather hilarious cover, depicting the trio outfitted in satin capes, black garb and boxing shorts, one member bare-chested, vamping in the sunlight above a European city sprawled below. All the codes of rock 'n' roll and "art music" collide, and the resulting chaos is more question than answer. I'll be mulling this one over for a good long while. - Philip Sherburne, September 28, 2001