For the sake of argument, let’s say there are two fundamental styles to musician and installation artist Thomas Köner’s body of work. On the one hand, there’s his low-frequency soundscape material, best represented by the shockingly prescient, early ’90s arctic trilogy, Nunatak, Teimo, and Permafrost. (1997’s Nuuk could be easily folded into that group as well).1 These are extraordinary, almost psychic renderings of brutal, unforgiving landscapes not normally conducive to human habitation, music that is creepy, comfortless, and convincing in its authenticity. Köner’s early sound – rumbling, chthonic drones, menacing pulses, and metallic swells, all impeccably recorded – was developed here, and it’s astonishing to listen to any of these albums now and realize how profoundly influential that sound has been. Nunatak, for example, was released in 1990 and it sounds comparable to anything of its ilk coming out today only much, much better.
On the other hand, there’s Porter Ricks, the minimalist dub techno outfit Köner operates with Andy Mellwig. Their first album, the also hugely influential Biokinetics, built from long, looping, layered club tracks, was released on Chain Reaction back in 1996, and helped establish the aesthetic for everything that was to follow on that legendary label. Twenty years later, Porter Ricks released the Shadow Boat EP on Tresor and then the full length Anguilla Electrica in 2017. Where Biokinetics feels thematically and stylistically unified if also the product of a particular period in time, these later works feel both updated and diversified. Energetic, edgy, even at times slinky and sexy, they stand, with Biokinetics, in considerable opposition to Köner’s solo work.2
Yet if there’s something besides Köner himself that connects these two approaches, it exists in the form of the unheimlich, the unsettling, unexpected touches and effects that he secretes into so much of his music. Squelching, rubbery, tactile sounds, unnervingly present, juxtaposed with off-kilter rhythms riding steady beats. Strategically placed incursions of gritty, fizzing, smudged, or serrated effects that provide oddly sensual texture and surprise. Choices that seem inappropriate when you first encounter them but that when you listen to them again seem absolutely right.
Köner’s latest album, Motus, on the Mille Plateaux label, presents an innovative synthesis of his moves toward both sonic topography and the dance floor.
It’s a murky, mysterious thing, full of secrets, contradictions, and questions. The cover art alone might tip you off to all that, but if that’s not enough, the eight track titles further mystify, coming off like a match test with no right answers:
It’s like a smoke screen designed to push you toward concentrating on the music. As for the music, the steady submerged rhythms here and there represent the Porter Ricks style but the unrelenting, churning, earthbound atmosphere put it in Köner’s soundscape camp, only the terrain explored here seems purely speculative. As for the unheimlich, this music throbs and gyrates and mutates on a cellular level. It’s from this world but not of it – you feel it beneath your skin like a subdermal merging of a subway system with your lymphatic system. It’s hard to single out individual tracks as highlights because the whole thing coheres so completely that to isolate one unit of it feels like vivisection, but the longer tracks, EXPRESSION (Release) and SUBSTRATE (Binaural), work to really pull you in and rearrange your chi. (Unfortunately, I’m unable to load any tracks from this album.)
The first time I heard Motus, it slipped right by me. I wasn’t focused – I wasn’t listening – and it wasn’t grasping at me either. It just was and it was up to me to come around to it. Now that I get it, I find more and more in it each time I listen.
1. I also feel compelled to mention 2012’s Novaya Zemlya, named after an inhabited island off the north Russian coast that served as a nuclear test site. This recording presents another hostile soundscape, one poisoned by human interference. A subliminally quiet album – though not without its shakingly subterranean depths – and a beautiful one, Novaya Zemlya is a continuation and expansion of Köner’s unique approach to soundscapes, and highly recommended.
2. To those of you already familiar with Köner’s oeuvre, I’m aware of the absence here of a number of his works: La Barca, Tiento de las nieves and Tiento de la luz, for instance, as well as Kaamos, Zyklop, and Daikan. There’s much to say about all of them. Perhaps some other time.