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Oval, "Scis"

cover imageI am hardly unique in this regard, but Markus Popp's classic run of mid-'90s albums made a huge impression on me, acting as a Rosetta Stone that led me to a world of radical (and also not-so-radical) electronic music far more compelling than the punk and industrial music that I was into at the time. Sadly, I cannot say that I have been a particularly loyal fan over the ensuing two decades, so I did not stick with Popp through his various bold attempts to reinvent his aesthetic. However, his work has never stopped interesting me–it is just that the allure of his earlier work was its perfect balance of bold concept and skilled execution. And, of course, an artist only gets to make a mind-blowing first impression once. As a result, later Oval albums simply did not leave a deep impression on me anything like that left by 94 Diskont. That said, there is definitely something to be said for masterful execution on its own and Scis fitfully captures Popp at the absolute height of his powers in that regard (particularly on the second half of the album). While my nostalgia—and expectation—clouded vision makes it impossible to rank this album within Oval's discography with any degree of objectivity, I feel quite confident in stating that some of the individual songs on Scis easily stand among the finest of Popp's long career (especially "Mikk").

Thrill Jockey

I think I can say with absolute certainty that my head would probably explode if I ever tried to fully understand Markus Popp's creative process, as he has made a career of self-imposed constraints, pushing software to its limits, and manipulating complex webs of loops with surgical precision.On top of that, he is quite a creatively restless guy, so he has no problem cheerfully abandoning a winning formula to attempt something unexpected and totally unfamiliar whenever the inclination strikes him.As such, articulating exactly what sets Scis apart from other Oval releases is no simple task.That said, Popp has stated that one of his driving objectives on past albums was to "reduce his own visible hand in the music" and that he is now trying to do the opposite through the use of acoustic instruments and "live" performance.I can certainly see evidence of that objective in the comparative looseness and sense of gleeful spontaneity that pervades these pieces, yet that does not make them any less fiendishly complex.Similarly, there are recognizably acoustic instruments throughout the album, such as the piano melody at the heart of the opening "Twirror," but Popp has used acoustic drums and human vocalists in the past and "Twirror" ultimately erupts into a pummeling maelstrom of electronic beats, buzzing electronic chaos, and electronically gnarled textures.Consequently, the difference is mostly just the balance between those various elements and how they are used.For the most part, Popp juggles those divergent approaches masterfully, though his beats tend to be somewhat rigid and thudding even while the rest of his aesthetic is basically a master class on how to make visionary, forward-thinking electronic music.That is a hurdle of sorts at times, but not an insurmountable one.

Unsurprisingly, one of the perks of Popp's expanded palette and hybrid software/live approach is that Scis is a remarkably varied album, albeit one that is held together beautifully by its propulsive rhythms and strong melodic focus.In fact, I am morbidly curious about how much material Popp must have discarded, as every single one of these ten songs has a strong enough motif at its core to be strong single.The only indication that Popp was not in an constant state of infallible, white-hot inspiration is that he has a tendency to return again and again to the same dynamic trajectory (a quiet, beatless lead-in that builds to a pounding kick drum crescendo).That tends to give a number of pieces an overly familiar feel on the first half of the album.It is not ineffective though, even if the power of the percussion overshadows some of the intricacy and beauty of Popp's dazzling melodic and textural achievements.It feels somewhat akin to a killer jazz ensemble enlisting a muscular rock drummer to transcend genre constraints and expand their appeal.As the album progresses, however, Popp finds some imaginative ways to untether himself from that recurring rhythmic framework.In "Improg," for example, Popp keeps the beat buried deep in the mix and periodically allows it to drop out altogether, which serves the delicately plinking and exhalation-like music quite nicely.Moreover, when the piece inevitably does increase in rhythmic intensity, the drums are periodically overpowered by a stammering and garbed melodic hook.Elsewhere, Popp organically balances the clattering and pounding percussion crescendo in "Piqqo" with an escalating surge of gorgeously blooping and swooning synth tones.The album's strongest piece ("Mikk") even goes one step further, bulldozing over its climactic beat explosion with an intense, throbbing pulse and a spark-throwing onslaught of skipping and distressed loops.  

After being struck by how much I loved some of the pieces on Scis, I decided to go back and re-listen to some other recent Oval albums and realized that I had woefully underappreciated several of them.More significantly, I belatedly realized that it is frankly amazing that just one person (mostly) is responsible for such a varied and visionary body of work, as Popp's oeuvre represents a truly improbable convergence of conceptual genius, tight songcraft, strong melodic sensibility, creative arrangements, and production mastery that blurs the lines between several genres.All of those elements are in ample abundance on Scis, which adds up to a legitimately dazzling and vibrant batch of songs.Moreover, Popp's curious approach to percussion seems to be a deliberate and subversive one, as he notes that he approached beats as an "instrumentalist rather than a beat-maker."On its face, that is an enigmatic statement, but I believe it means that he views drums like a classical composer views a timpani: there are actual grooves in every song, but they are used to more for shifts in dynamic intensity that as an end unto themselves.That said, I still wish those beats were more fluid and a bit less overpowering (a feat achieved only on "Oxagon"), as the music on Scis is hook-filled, nuanced, and playfully experimental enough to make this a near-masterpiece.In its current form, that likely means that there are a handful of songs that I will likely play to death, but Scis is an album that is absolutely screaming for a remix treatment: all of the greatness is there, but several of these songs could use a bit more space and rhythmic fluidity to realize their full potential.Until that happens, however, Scis is a very strong album that reminds me exactly why I was—and should continue to be—a devoted fan of Popp's work.

Samples can be found here.