Album Reviews

Irmin Schmidt & Kumo – Axolotl Eyes

(Spoon) UK release date: 14 April 2008

Irmin Schmidt & Kumo - Axolotl Eyes Firstly, a health warning: Axolotl Eyes is pretty heavy on breakbeats. This is mainly thanks to Kumo, aka Jono Podmore, pioneer of the genre and Professor of Popular Music at Cologne University: possibly the most wigged-out position in academia.

His collaborator Irmin Schmidt is a founder member of Can, and brings a host of funk, Krautrock and ambient influences to the party. However Axolotl Eyes nearly always keeps one foot in the breakbeat camp, which sometimes proves problematic: like skiffle or prog-rock, breakbeat is one of those genres which instantly dates a record – and throughout the album we are repeatedly pulled back to a rather unlovely backwater of the ’90s music scene.

Schmidt and Kumo desribe Axolotl Eyes as ‘boundary-free’, meaning that its seven long tracks pull in vastly different directions. Kick On The Floods was initiated by sampling the first three seconds of a hundred random tracks and mashing them together, topped off with plaintive mariachi trumpets. To these ears it sounds like Goldie DJing at a Corleone wedding: whether or not this is a good thing is open to debate.

Speaker-wrecking crunches lead us into Drifting Days, Crime Pays – easily the most melodic composition here. It’s pleasant enough, with the feel of a mildly unsettling kids’ TV theme tune that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used to churn out in the ’70s and ’80s.

On Umbilicus Clear the album hits its stride, ditching the breakbeats and settling into sinister ambient territory. At times the howling and industrial grinding recalls a David Lynch film soundtrack; at others the electronic clicks and beeps seem to create the sounds of a rainforest in digital form. Apparently it was influenced by the artists’ own sound installations, one of which is given away here in a bonus two-hour DVD.

This work, entitled Flies, Guys and Choirs, gives a clue as to where the duo’s real talents lie: their music really comes alive when complemented by unsettling images of flies in close-up, distorted urban backdrops and grimy night-time bus rides.

The dated breakbeats are unfortunately back for much of the rest of the album. At the more accessible end, the jaunty Raketenstadt echoes the cheesier moments of Leftfield‘s Leftism album or Brian Eno‘s 1992 foray into contemporary dance music Nerve Net. At the more experimental end, Axolotl Eyes and Meteor Infected sound like the kind of thing Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh would dream up in the middle of a night of tortured insomnia. It’s a sad fact, but as the Boosh are fond of reminding us, the Shoreditch twats lent a ridiculous angle to breakbeat when they resurrected it a few years back, and hence this ground can only be retrodden at the risk of sounding, well, a bit daft.

The piano-led Etrurian Waltz is more flowing, expansive and likeable, but by this point my attention had wandered. In its statelier moments Axolotl Eyes has a lot to offer, though in these moments it’s crying out for visual accompaniments to complete the jigsaw. Elsewhere the reliance on a tired sound makes for a less than satisfying experience. Still, you can always put the DVD on at a party and terrify your friends.

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