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Alva Noto, "Xerrox, Vol. 4"

cover imageThis latest volume of Carsten Nicolai's planned five-part series devoted to degraded samples is a bit different from previous installments, as the Xerrox vision has become a more focused and cinematic one. In Nicolai's own words, this series has increasingly been devoted to exploring more "intimate gestures and emotional sensibilities" than the meticulous sound design perfectionism and concept-driven art that he is best known for. In practical terms, that means that Xerrox, Vol. 4 mostly captures Alva Noto in comparatively abstract and almost "ambient" territory, as these fourteen songs are uncharacteristically built from slow-moving drones and sleepy, soft-focus melodies. For the most part, such an approach is appealing primarily because it reveals a more organic and harmony-focused side to Nicolai's long-running and oft-excellent project (as opposed to an evolution or improvement upon his usual fare). As such, Xerrox, Vol. 4 is a definite outlier in the Alva Noto discography. In the case of few pieces, however, a more gnarled and dissonant character unexpectedly emerges that feels like a tantalizing glimpse of a significant creative breakthrough.


The album opens with one of Nicolai's strongest and most evocative feats of sample-layering alchemy, as "Xerrox Kirlian" combines somber synth chords, twinkling chimes, strings, ghostly voices, and a rumbling undercurrent of noise into a tender and bittersweetly melancholy dreamscape.To some degree, that piece sets the tone for the entire album and it is generally an appealing one, but the album tends to reach its greatest heights when Nicolai heads in a more sci-fi-influenced direction.His occasional forays into harsher textures are quite welcome as well, as they inject some very effective bite and dynamic intensity into the album's understated, grayscale aesthetic.For the most part, however, Xerrox, Vol. 4 makes me feel like I am walking slowly through the ruins of an abandoned city in a daze.In fact, the album almost feels like a futuristic field recording of empty, windswept streets and blowing trash, but one that is haunted by an omnipresent, machinelike-hum and drifting, curdled strains of orchestral music.While that certainly makes for a brooding and sustained atmosphere of ominousness, Nicolai is generally quite content to simply let that air of mystery and emptiness linger, only rarely parting the veil to reveal something more substantial and structured.The most vividly realized and memorable of those moments falls near the end of the album, as "Xerrox Sans Retour" builds up from a ghostly chord progression into an eerie crescendo of bleary strings, scrapes, and crackles.There are several other pieces in which form breaks through the fog, however, and they all seem to reveal a different shade of the same desolate reverie (sometimes even letting in an unexpected bit of light).  

Most of the lighter pieces appear on the first half of the album, such as "Xerrox Neige" and "Xerrox Île."The former is essentially a drone piece, but the lazily undulating tones feel considerably warmer and more organic than those that fill the rest of the album (even the rhythmic washes of crackling static feel non-threatening)."Xerrox Île," on the other hand, is one of the album's more melodic pieces, as a lovely, Celer-style string loop lazily floats across a stark landscape of distant rumble and hiss.Elsewhere, "Xerrox Voyage" takes a sleepily wistful tone, as an understated and gently twinkling melody unfolds over a corroded-sounding backdrop of deep-bass drones and spacey textures that resemble interstellar radio signals.Later, the album's longest piece ("Xerrox Calypsoid 2") explores similar territory, but heads in a more ambiguous and queasily hallucinatory direction, as Nicolai's slow-motion string samples descend in a disorienting and vaguely dissonant chord progression.I prefer the shorter "Xerrox Calypsoid 1" though, as it is enlivened with a host of buzzing, whooshing, and sputtering textures that give it a bit more textural heft.That said, the album's highlights are not all that different from the rest of the songs, as Nicolai remains unwaveringly devoted to an elusive aesthetic of hazy, slow-motion melodies over shifting sands of bleakly eviscerated-sounding drones.The overall effect feels akin to being submerged existentially, like there is some kind of barrier dampening and blurring every stimuli.      

It feels somewhat wrong to describe Xerrox, Vol. 4 as a challenging or difficult album, as I usually reserve those terms for harsh or radically structured work.This album, on the other hand, is consistently tranquil in tone and relatively conventional melodically, yet it feels fundamentally alienating and unsatisfying by design.That admittedly seems like a perplexing choice, but given how exacting Nicolai's work has been in the past, it can only have been a very deliberate decision.While that approach is not necessarily ideal from an entertainment perspective, Nicolai has always been a very cerebral and art-driven fellow and Xerrox, Vol. 4 is nevertheless an intriguing and ambitiously unusual statement that may very well be ahead of its time.In fact, it could be argued that he has birthed a new type of science fiction dystopia with this album, as it feels like the soundtrack for a future that is washed-out, crumbling, and numb rather than one populated with flying cars and glittering skylines of shiny metal edifices in unusual shapes.Actually, in keeping with Nicolai's compositional approach, it might be more apt to say it feels like a grainy, tenth generation photocopy of a futuristic city that has rendered everything a lifeless, murky gray.It is also enigmatically more than that, however, as it feels like there are small tears and ragged edges in that photocopy which reveal fleeting glimpses of something more vibrant and glimmering beneath.It is definitely a strange and complex listening experience and a very hard album to wrap my mind around.While I think I can say with some certainly that it will never be among my favorite Alva Noto releases, I certainly admire Nicolai's willingness to attempt something so complexly ambiguous and alien.No artist stays vital by repeating themselves and Nicolai deserves a lot of credit for pushing the envelope in a direction that had presumably never even crossed anyone else's mind.