Freiband – Stainless Steel


Stainless Steel is the work of Frans de Waard, released as a vinyl album on ini itu. Freiband would seem to be a project title rather than a pseudonym.

Apart from his work over many years in new or experimental music, Frans de Waard reviews for Vital Weekly, an online initiative which provides a great service to countless musicians and sound artists who aren’t going to get much change out of the mainstream press. He has a deep and wide knowledge of the field of new music and sonic art, and having been around for a long time, is involved in numerous projects, both solo and collaborative.

The label ini itu has a unique focus. All the previous releases (which I’ve reviewed and enjoyed immensely) have had some connection with South East Asian instruments and musical culture. Stainless Steel is described as two sides of radically reworked gamelan, which is presumably why it finds its way on to an ini itu vinyl release.

The album has a digital side, Stainless, which I assume involves software processing, and an analogue side, Steel, in which ‘some arcane wirings, some machines end up spitting out shifting binary patterns’.

Stainless begins with a crescendo from a grainy texture to a pitched interval (a perfect 5th if my ears aren’t mistaken) with another layer further back in the mix. Panned crackles contrast with the emerging and receding layers. There are occasional dropouts in the radio static sounds, but a pitched voice remains constant. We realise quite quickly that the resources have been very effectively reduced to a minimum – this, and subtle touches like a very fine diminuendo, both point to exquisite craftsmanship. The crackling sounds come over as very hackneyed to my ears, and (almost) bring to mind the predictable fuzzy narcosis of some overrated ambient popsters posing as ‘experimental’ artists. However, these intrusions are never too dominant here and after a few listens I think de Waard shows a genuine concern to make the best of those kinds of sounds, even if I don’t know what they have to do with gamelan.

Next we have a pause for new sounds, more metallic and processed this time; iterative and broken. More crackles, but not too anaesthetic or overused. The music returns to a polyphony of iterations with a metallic edge, persistent, deliberate, quite unique and distinctive after a while. The interest deepens with the appearance of an ominous lower frequency, all within a relaxed and unhurried time frame, which is one of the great strengths of this piece.

At this point you wouldn’t know that the sound sources had anything to do with gamelan, an interesting approach as I’m hearing nothing of what I’d consider to be the gamelan’s essential characteristics, inharmonicity and so on. He might as well have used pots and pans. But I think that de Waard is putting his experience and musical savvy to good use here, looking sideways and being very clever in taking the patterned overlapping kotekans of gamelan as his focus. This quite austere approach comes through very well in the piece.

There has been a (somewhat one-sided) debate in academic electroacoustic music, an idiom which should never be underestimated by the way, as to whether one should show some of the character of the source material or go hell for leather and process it to smithereens. I can draw parallels here with more mainstream idioms. For example Thelonious Monk believed firmly in keeping a handle on the tune during the improvised passages, as opposed to running through the changes. Ron Block, banjo player with Union Station, says the same of bluegrass. The listener can choose their preferred aesthetic – I lean towards the notion of letting some of the source shine through.

Back to the music: another drop out, then back in again with a fresh layer on top – it’s beginning to get interesting now and abstracting more from the sound source (which is of course important if you’ve mentioned it in the first place). You could almost dance to the last few minutes. Another sudden dropout, then, to my ears, a slightly disappointing obviously processed gated/stretched sounding passage (but maybe I’ve spent too much time with nerdy spectral processing packages) after which it all gets interesting again with some more radical spectral processing, scrambling and rearranging of some kind (ok – I’ll refrain from playing play ‘spot the process’), dribbly water sounds and liquid iterations – the iterations do keep us on track and on script.

More electroacoustic than elektronische, this music is far more restrained than perhaps I’m acknowledging and this is a very strong feature in the identity of de Waard’s music. It is just on the right side of inscrutability without being evasive. There are very fine contrasts between the sparse (dare I say minimalist?) and the busy sections. I enjoyed the looped endings – can’t do that with a cd can you?

Steel consists of a stream of pulses/beats/iterations or whatever else you want to call them and so can be played at any speed you like. I don’t know if this is an original concept, I doubt it, but it’s a good idea and it works. Apart from a section at the end I could identify three contrasting sounds or layers, separated by register and timbre. I thought this was quite clever as I don’t get to listen to much of this kind of music. Here I was drawn in without wondering whether this was a dance producer trying to be cool. One sound rolls along according to a given pattern or cell, then breaks into a different pattern, then into sets of patterns. This business of cells is as close as I can imagine to some of the core practices of the composers originally associated with minimalism: various cells and patterns superimposed, offset, drifting, evolving in different ways. Hence the inevitable comparisons with Reich and company.

To digress and self-refer (again) for a moment, the beats remind me of a time in my life when I missed the boat, yet again. A friend came round to my apartment with a broken drum machine and a very dodgy delay box which he ‘played’, though how on earth he knew what was going to happen was beyond me. I played a pair of temple bells into the input of a very iffy synth. I’d never heard anything like it. This was in the early ’90s and I didn’t have the foresight to realise the potential. Anyway, that’s what this reminds me of, though Frans’s music sounds much more organised.

I found myself playing games: the counting game (how many layers?), the metrical game (where’s the pulse?), the rhythmic game, different from the metrical game (what’s the rhythm?), the cell game and so on. The music started to hit the funk button at one point with a taste of swing. At times I could imagine a target audience of folks who like to get totally zipped to this music, perhaps to the accompaniment of a backdrop of blippy visuals. But this music is so much more visceral than the antiseptic sterile posturing of some of the ‘big name’ minimalist beatmeisters, without wishing to be disrespectful of course. Music like this should be about six hours long, maybe running from a random or conceptual algorithm. That way you’d be able to know if it really worked as ‘ambient minimalism’ or simply got on your t*ts.

Again, the music sticks in a loop at the end, one of the wonders of vinyl – try doing that with an mp3.

It’s an interesting choice of release for ini itu given their previous offerings and here I’m curious. ini itu seemed to me to have a special thing going and I’d have liked to see them going even deeper into the south east Asian musical traditions. Stainless Steel, excellent though it is on its own terms, would fit into many a label’s aesthetic.

Yet overall this piece falls on the right side of mesmeric without ever being monotonous. Given the means, I’d like to get my hands on four or more copies of rhe album, run them at different speeds, diffuse them over a multi-channel system and wallow in the mix.


2 Responses to “Freiband – Stainless Steel”

  1. […] A great review appeared of my Freiband LP here […]

  2. […] enveloped sound, possibly white noise generated from a synth (by Frans de Waard of a previous review – small world) push towards a blend of the hypnotic and the filmic, but always clever enough to […]

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