August 12, 2002

Akufen "My Way"

Many IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) practitioners constantly strive for new sounds and new methods by which to contort them. Although the quest for originality-above-all-else may keep the genre’s musical progress from stagnating, it doesn’t really make things easy for neophyte listeners. Though many are adventurous enough to dip their toes in the water, most are too attached to the tried and true to dive into the shallow end of the pool.

My personal introduction to IDM came from Autechre’s 1996 masterwork Tri Repetae, which is basically the turning point of their oeuvre. The two albums they made before Tri Repetae struck me as a bit cheesy and dated, whereas everything they made afterwards would probably strike everyone who isn’t already into Autechre by now as too cerebral or difficult. If someone were to ask me what IDM sounded like, and I could only choose one record as an answer, I wouldn’t choose Autechre’s debut Amber, nor would I pick Confield, their most recent (and arguably harshest) album. I could use examples from the discographies of Oval and Aphex Twin to back my case up, but I will simply get to the point. Every once in a while, an IDM record comes along that is anchored firmly enough in traditional sounds to satiate those just getting their feet wet, but also forward-thinking enough to entrance the deep sea divers. Akufen’s My Way is one of them.

Akufen, a.k.a. Marc Leclair, composes his tracks with a technique that he refers to as “micro-sampling”. The technique is exactly what its name implies; instead of sampling entire bars or hooks from songs
Puffy-style, Leclair excises millisecond-length bits from whatever broadcasts he happens to glean from his short-wave radio. Voices are broken down to either individual consonants for a percussive effect, or individual vowels for a melodic effect. I think the only voice on the whole record that I can identify is a syllable from a Janet Jackson song (on “Heaven Can Wait”); I’m not entirely sure what it is about her voice that remains distinctive even when chopped into such small bits. Organic instruments, many of them seemingly derived from ‘70s jazz-funk songs, are only allowed to play a couple of notes, if that much, before being abruptly interrupted by the next sample. Of course, both Prefuse 73 and Nuno Canavarro have made use of small vocal samples before Leclair. However, Leclair is the first artist I’ve heard to make micro-sampling his primary method of composition, and to apply this technique to instruments as well as voices. With the aid of very precise panning and tasteful usage of reverb, these micro-samples are combined to form collages that are paced rapidly enough to induce seizures when listened to on headphones.

Two things keep My Way from becoming an experiment gone awry:
its roots in house music and its masterful sequencing. Opening track “Even White Horizons” is the album’s most mellow, attempting a kind of futuristic jazz-noir with its samples of weepy strings and ominous acoustic guitars. On this song and the album’s next two tracks, the micro-samples are used sparingly as garnish over what would otherwise be pleasant and slightly formulaic four-on-the-floor beats. Each song is more strident than the last, the micro-samples becoming slightly more jarring; third track “Skidoos” makes particularly great use of four different people uttering the same syllable. You get the feeling that Leclair is slowly trying to ease you into the extremities of his sound world.

Once the fourth track “Deck the House” begins, though, he pulls the rug off from under your feet. The droning keyboards that carried the previous three songs are abandoned. The micro-samples are left to completely dictate the chord progressions and melodies of the next six songs, with only the staccato bass lines and four-on-the-floor rhythms left to support them. Short-wave interference, dial tones, and other miscellaneous sound effects are micro-sampled along with the voices and instruments. The collages get so hectic that by the time the ten-minute epic “Late Night Munchies” begins, you’ll feel like a ball inside a pinball machine. No matter what happens, though, the songs on My Way remain easy to dance to, and occasionally even hummable. You can play any of these songs in a club, and after the audience realizes that the P.A. system isn’t malfunctioning, they’ll resume dancing like nothing ever happened.

The title track that closes the album begins completely free of
micro-samples, and the sampled vocalists are allowed to sing an entire phrase: “I want to do it my way.” This comparatively relaxed and uncluttered portion serves as a fitting palate cleanser after the
frenzy of the previous six songs. He doesn’t let the listeners off the hook so easy, though; in case anyone forgets what Leclair’s way means, he lets a flurry of micro-sampled organs hijack the song at its five-minute mark. When My Way fades out, you will agree that Leclair has more than earned the right to be such an autocrat. Here’s hoping that musically, Akufen neither regresses nor disappears up his own arse, as so many of his contemporaries are wont to do...

---Sean Padilla

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