Debate has been raging as to whether Rajko Muller’s third album under the Isolee moniker (his first since leaving Playhouse for DJ Koze’s Pampa label) lives up to some pretty weighty expectations. Given Muller’s cult status as a pioneer of music often clumsily defined as Microhouse and the lengthy gestation period following his last proper album (2005’s restless, propulsive and superb Wearemonster), it’s perhaps unsurprising that his admirers expect nothing less than an instant classic. In the UK, the main obstacle against Muller may be less the expectations of individuals, but more an increasingly fragmented electronic music world, where numerous sub-genres have both emerged and subsided since his last full length release. Its numerous strengths aside, Well Spent Youth is some way away from the various forms of UK bass music that have dominated concerns here in recent years.
However, judged on its own terms, there can be little doubt that Well Spent Youth is a success. Whilst it doesn’t exactly veer far from the tried and tested Isolee template, it’s a good deal warmer and more ingratiating than Muller’s austere recent singles. Perhaps there is nothing here likely to have quite as significant an impact as his legendary Beau Mot Plage single, but there is certainly plenty to admire and enjoy.
Muller frontloads the album with its strongest material. The opening Paloma Trieste is among his finest works – a quirky, florid, infectious piece with plenty of zest and bounce. Its sunburst, inviting sound is punctuated by peculiar interjections of staccato, angular bass guitar. It’s a more successful involvement of additional instrumentation than on the comparable recent effort from Trentem�ller. As ever, Muller’s music is not about beats or ostinato figures. The track is anchored by a slower, but still familiar four to the floor pattern and the bass patterns are unpredictable. Instead, it’s all about textures, sounds and subtle implications of melody.
The minimal, relentless house rhythmic imperative can still dominate and direct Muller’s music, as on the splendid, glittering Thirteen Times An Hour. This is Muller at his most intense and insistent. Tatkell is more mysterious (and arguably more representative of the album as a whole), with sounds ebbing and flowing from the ghostly ether.
Muller’s great creative strength is to lull his listeners into a false sense of security. Many of the tracks on Well Spent Youth suggest a hypnotic, beatific state – but Muller’s music is less reliant on repetition than that of many of his contemporaries. Instead, it’s the unpredictable – the element of surprise – that makes his work so effective. The best tracks here don’t merely elaborate on his basic ideas, but also manipulate and transform them. On Going Nowhere, he adopts a gentler, perhaps even delicate and vulnerable filter for his by now familiar sounds.
Sometimes, Muller’s biggest surprises are not particularly welcome. Transmission is one of the strangest tracks here – a sort of uncomfortable fusion of Krautrock and minimal house. These two worlds have been far more successfully combined elsewhere, by the likes of Lindstrom and Prins Thomas and also, of course, by Muller himself. The vocal parts on Transmission sound oddly lifeless and more than a little out of place in this context.
It is, however, the only real mis-step on an otherwise brilliantly sustained album. Perhaps it might also be refreshing that Well Spent Youth does not really fit with the overall map of electronic music in 2011. Muller is sticking to his guns with confidence and conviction.