Picture this: You're at the malt shop with a good friend, sipping on a chocolate shake and shooting the breeze. (Also picture that there are still malt shops.) After chit-chatting about school and chicks, your friend informs you that SND have just released their first album in almost seven years. Your reaction is likely to be one of the following:
2) "Holy mother of god, you're kidding me!"
You see Beav, SND's Mark Fell and Mat Steel left behind three albums for the dearly departed Mille Plateaux label just before it folded: 1999's Makesnd Cassette, 2000's Stdiosnd Types, and 2002's Tender Love. Then, a whole lotta nada. What they offered us were views of three impossibly clean glitchworlds, each one more inviting than the last. Pixilated flowers blossomed and the sun came out over Makesnd Cassette`s reclusive clicks and sighs during Stdiosnd Types, the quintessence of warm, lazy relaxation. Tender Love turned SND into almost a dance act, boasting quasi-house beats and amplifying the smooth grooves Stdiosnd Types only suggested. Fell and Steel may never know how perfect of a balance they struck between Jan Jelinek's overt soulfulness and the grayscale glitch the Chain Reaction label was peddling in gray metal boxes. It wasn't work to listen to them, as it was with some of their clicks-'n-cuts contemporaries, but the duo was eccentric enough to not be a household name in every malt shop across town. For a certain strain of techno nerd, it was just right.
Following Tender Love, Fell and Steel left SND in mothballs and became Blir for a short while, producing stripped-down, amelodic ultra-minimalism that did feel like work. The one CD bearing Blir's name in late 2005 gave us every reason to believe that SND's next offering, if it ever arrived, would continue to plumb the ether regions of absolutely nowhere. But as it happens, Atavism dials back to Tender Love`s relative accessibility and danceable thrust. Nonetheless, it's a very different sort of record. Gone are the late-night atmospherics and mindful clacking, replaced by a persistent chilliness, blunted and invasive swatches of melody and beats that are meaty as heck. The 30 seconds of prototypical SND beeping in the first of 16 untitled tracks is the only obvious glance backward, but once we know what's coming it takes on an air of preparation at the same time that it forces us to bid a final farewell to the duo's past. "Remember when we did this?", Fell and Steel seem to be asking us from behind their computers. "Yeah, so do we. We're not doing that anymore." And off we go.
As the intro slides into the second track, the record hits an early peak. It's the only track here with a semblance of warmth, its Euro-chic sparkles congregating on the end of a ball peen hammer that whack-whack-whacks out a staccato, highly syncopated rhythm conspicuously missing an upbeat. When it finally appears in the form of a synthetic handclap, it nails the track to the dancefloor for six minutes of sweat and strobe lights. It's a solid summation of SND's current M.O.: to leave out most of the pieces initially, then gradually fill in the gaps to bring the picture into greater focus. The full pictures themselves are often incomplete, but the holes are placed so perfectly that the arrangements sound awesomely slanted instead of quizzical and frustrating (though the ring-modulated rubber balls in the seventh and thirteenth tracks don't give an inch and could prove to be exceptions). That's the lesson Fell and Steel brought with them from Tender Love. In attempting to generate funkiness off an electronic grid, it's what isn't there that will make all the difference.
The equilibrium between alien funk and outright pulverization keeps Atavism charged and exciting, and the better segments don't necessarily show more mercy. SND know you can take that rapid, repeated pounding on the fantastic ninth track, perhaps the most oddly propulsive thing ever to emerge from the stuffy halls of Raster-Noton. The fact that the 14th track starts with only three beats per bar (bop, bop, thwack!) lends each one considerable power, as if it's had most of its teeth knocked out and thus relies heavily on the ones that are still around. The third track provides a half-obscured view of the best song Atjazz was too lazy to write, before the barren, metallic, stuttering fourth track banishes its icy-cool house melody to Siberia. And even that has nothing on the sixth track's mashup of several of the record's beats into one super-quick, head-spinning polythrhythm.
What's surprising is how easy all of this is to like, immediately and upon repeated listening. The variety sure helps. The duo has only added a few new instruments to their arsenal and the palette is limited by design, but just as an accomplished cook can whip up a host of dishes with a handful of ingredients, SND find novel ways of presenting the same raw stuff. Sometimes it's a matter of just one or two tweaks to the original template, as it is on Atavism`s final three-track set, where Fell and Steel provide three distinct takes on one song with a simple flick of the wrist. There's also a catnip-like addictiveness to their combination of slamming, rubberized beats with the short melodic inflammations that flare up upon their impact. It's what I imagine might spring forth in a collaboration between Autechre and Jimmy Edgar. "Smooth, guys, smoooooth," Edgar says with splayed, pacifying hands, to which Autechre shoot back, "There has to be a punch and a little sterility or the whole thing will sound sleazy and lame. Hey, don't you have a song called "I Wanna Be Your STD"?" Then they make up and produce this record.
More than anything else, Atavism invites engagement due to a vastly underrated SND quality that's apt to slip beneath the listener's radar: safety. The idea of "safe music" by itself isn't going to get too many people heated up, but when a record's environment is as edgy and confrontational as this one, some sense of comfort is vitally important. Hanna, Kirk Degiorgio, and a cavalcade of tech-house producers manage this with lush soundscapes. SND do it by barring all gunk, bugs, acoustic instrumentation and general dissonance from its force field-cordoned arena. So, paradoxically, no matter how physical Atavism gets to be, it's as thoroughly unthreatening as a coastal vacation spot. For all the talk about technology vying to ruin our livelihoods, SND suggest that we've got it backwards: Real life is scary; computers aren't. This has, in fact, always been the duo's quiet calling card, the reason why Stdiosnd Types is my constant "happy place" for when my mind craves an escape. Atavism represents the brazen step forward so many of us believed Fell and Steel would never take, but after the near-interminable sabbatical, they're still SND. What a relief--and an unqualified victory.
(This was published in PopMatteres on 5/12/09)