Unfinished modular sketches from the notebook of one of electronica’s more unlikely adherents
There’s an amusing New Yorker cartoon doing the rounds on social media; two middle-aged guys are looking at an expensive hi-fi and the caption reads, “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience”. The gag may as well be about modular synthesis. Building a modular system takes time, is costly, and the finished product (if it ever is finished – modular is like crack to synth heads) is notoriously difficult to control.
In the liner notes for ‘1D’, a record created solely with modular, Lloyd Cole explains that much of his creative life lately has been spent in front of a computer screen, and he wanted to break free from it. That, and his desire for a new process for his collaboration with Roedelius, meant he got into modular. This led to their 2013 release, ‘Selective Studies Volume 1’, which in turn brings us to this album.
‘1D’ is a collection of demos, experiments, modular system learning curves being ascended, and close-but-no-cigar rejections Cole made in preparation for the collaboration. As part of Bureau B’s canny belief that process is as as valid as finished product, it encouraged Cole to dig out these demos for release. The label has some previous with this kind of nosy archival smash and grab, recently truffling through Conrad Schnitzler’s vault for goodies and innocently asking Karl Bartos if he had any tapes up in the loft from his Kraftwerk days (he did, and the result was 2013’s splendid ‘Off The Record’).
Modular systems allow dissonance – you can soon start spitting out non-standard scales of voltage controlled note generation – but Cole’s melodic instinct has kept him from pursuing that path, instead inspiring a series of tuneful and gentle pieces. In some places, ‘1D’ is like an analogue update of Mark Mothersbaugh’s ‘Muzik For Insomniaks’ series, a couple of 1980s albums of improvised/generative music created within the digital workflow of the Fairlight. And like ‘Muzik For Insomniaks’, ‘1D’ is appealing and listenable, with enough space in it to be considered ambient, but with more rhythm and melody – more organisation – than you’d usually expect from baby-step experimental noodlings with modular.
This is certainly not a record for the casual listener, and you have to wonder what Cole’s core audience will make of the relatively challenging fare, much like when Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones decided to make a pretty confrontational electronic noise project in 2014 (Minibus Pimps’ ‘Close To Ground’). Zep completists must have been sorely tested by that particular outing. However, from our perspective, it looks like Lloyd Cole has discovered an authentic voice with electronic music, and his search for a new process has paid off.