Moritz Von Oswald is, in spite of being something of a shadowy figure, one of the most important and influential names in the development of techno. As one half of acts such as Maurizio and Basic Channel, he helped define the minimal, repetitive approach to the music and became a key influence on the likes of Richie Hawtin and Wolfgang Voigt. Yet he has always been interested in a much wider range of music. He played drums for a German new wave band and has often explored aspects of dub and reggae in his own music. More recently, in a trio with Sasu Ripatti and Max Loderbauer, he has added completely improvised music to his list of bold experiments.
In 2009, the group released one of that year’s finest albums in the form of Vertical Ascent, an immersive, brilliantly executed melding of electronic and acoustic sounds. The title of this eagerly awaited new work suggests the flipside of the coin. In many ways, this proves to be correct. Although similar in structure and nature (four very long tracks, each named Structure 1, Structure 2 &C.), Horizontal Structures is a far less kinetic, more contemplative work, unfolding slowly and gracefully and demanding a good deal of patience from the listener. It is impressive that the trio have done something other than offering more of the same.
Given the range of musical interests displayed on Horizontal Structures, it makes sense that it should emerge on Honest Jons. The shop has been a specialist in reggae, soul and jazz for decades, and all of those genres have influenced the trio’s approach and modes of performance here. Whilst Oswald is keen to emphasise that the music is improvised and nothing is written in advance, there do seem to be some thematic and sonic threads that provide Horizontal Structures with its own identity, distinct from the trio’s previous work.
The pieces are mostly downtempo, and extremely subtle. Even when rhythms more often associated with the energy and celebration of African music appear, they are rendered so quietly and calmly that they merge with the overall sound collage. Appreciating this exquisitely crafted set requires a considerable attention to detail – sometimes changes are ushered in so gently that they are almost imperceptible. The shortest piece here is just over 10 minutes long, whilst the longest is almost twice that. Whilst the scientific titles may suggest a mechanical approach (and the music has something of a mechanical sound at times), this is clearly the work of an improvising group that has now worked and performed together enough to have become a collective unit.
Structure 1 evolves from a repeating, insistent bassline, around which a variety of abrasive clanging and scraping sounds rise and fall. The sound world is eerie and murky, perhaps even slightly menacing. Eventually a 12/8 African bell pattern creeps in, but it’s so delicate that it’s simply a light foundation, rather than a driving rhythmic impetus. Eventually, a conga pattern joins the mix – but, by this point, acoustic and electronic sounds are so superbly blended that it all sounds remarkably unified.
Structure 2 builds from a one note pulsating synth riff. The overall feeling of this track is one of mathematical precision. Almost buried beneath the overall fuzz is what sounds like a guitar, offering some contrasting musical expression. Structure 3 emphasises the dub preoccupations of the project, with its deep, rumbling basslines and staccato chordal interjections from the guitar, heavily treated with impressive echo.
Structure 4, at just over 20 minutes in duration, is by some distance the longest of the four pieces. Its initial seconds seem to feature some interplay between percussion and a flute-like sound that suggest it might explore similar territory to that of Yusuf Lateef or Sun Ra. The track defies expectations by quickly establishing a deeply hypnotic groove. This is perhaps the most successful example here of Von Oswald’s interest in the detail of sound – in timbre and in effect more than with the traditional demands of melody, rhythm and harmony.
Horizontal Structures is a less immediate and considerably more demanding work than Vertical Ascent. It takes Von Oswald further from the traditional self imposed limitations of techno. Four square club rhythms are jettisoned in favour of a series of weirdly compelling sound collages, in which percussion and electronics combine together in natural and seemingly effortless improvisations.