Trentemøller: “The Mash and the Fury”
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Among the challenges of music criticism and consumption is the genre dilemma. How do we explain how something sounds without pigeonholing? Whether we cognitively recognize it or not, every genre carries with it a set of expectations and emotions that distort the way we hear music. Of course, some tags have a stronger gravitational pull negatively or positively than others, depending on personal taste, and any given genre may have dozens of subcategories.
Electronic music has quite a few subcategories of its own: house, techno, downtempo, dubstep, grime, wonky, jungle, rave, nu-rave, minimal, glitch, IDM, drum ’n’ bass, trip hop, etc. And as soon as someone picks up a drum machine, he or she is herded into one of the categories.
This isn’t necessarily bad; it makes it easier to group like-minded artists together and helps expose people to new music that they might enjoy simply by association. But it’s not necessarily good either, because we subsequently create expectations for artists and how their art will sound.
Trentemøller’s tremolo-swollen and overdriven guitar riffs are dark and immensely powerful, with the shudder of the whammy bar sending trembles through the music.
Danish production guru Trentemøller is particularly struck by this problem. “I don’t see myself as either an electronic musician or a rock musician,” he says. “I’m so tired of the boxes people always want to put music into.” For him, making music is not about putting a few contrasting genres head to head in a heavyweight title fight; it’s about calling upon whatever elements fit any given composition at any given time.
Anders Trentemøller has been building his name in the Danish electronic scene since 2003. After remixing some high-profile artists (Röyksopp, The Knife, Robyn, and Moby to name a few), he decided to expand his production talents to a full-length album.
The year 2006 saw the release of The Last Resort, an ambitious double-disc collection that showed off his ability to split the difference between headphone friendly grooves and dance-floor burners. The record garnered praise from the electronically oriented online community and catapulted him to global attention. Due to the success of The Last Resort, he was able to quit his day job, and he earned a headlining spot at the 2009 Roskilde Festival as well as a chance to remix Pet Shop Boys.
His new album, Into the Great Wide Yonder — released in June on In My Room — is a dramatic departure from his previous work. Whereas The Last Resort excelled in its ability to cut away the fat and muscle of dance music and show us its frail skeleton, Into the Great Wide Yonder proves that electronic music can be powerful and dense.
The songs are more complex and heavier than his previous album, with layer upon layer of robust orchestration that includes mandolins, Theremins, vibraphones, strings, synths, and acoustic and electronic drums playing a game of king of the hill.
But those instruments, most of which were performed by Trentemøller, fall to the wayside when confronted by the tremolo-swollen and overdriven guitar riffs. The guitar work, again performed by Trentemøller, sounds like surf rock during a hurricane, dark and immensely powerful, with the shudder of the whammy bar sending trembles through the music.
This stylistic change likely occurred because of Trentemøller’s spontaneous writing process. “I never make a plan for my music before I start composing,”he says. “I love it when the music itself takes me somewhere I’m not really in control of.” For Into the Great Wide Yonder, he pushed his own limits creatively and tried different ways of recording. He switched to a more manual style of recording, by turning his monitor off so that he couldn’t “see” the music, and laid down much of the music on analog tape before using the computer as a recorder and mixer instead of an instrument.
This style of aural based composing is apparent on the album. Tracks grow and mutate in a much less sequenced manner than his previous work. You can’t count 16 beats on this record and expect something to change. It creates its own rules for transformation. The best example of this would be the opening track, “The Mash and the Fury,” which billows its way into existence with a minute-long ambient wash. Soft blips accent the tonal floodplain created by Trentemøller’s synths in a manner not constrained by tight rhythms or measures.
Over the course of the song, new elements are added until the whole piece slides into a rhythmic order, but not with the icy perfection that characterized his last effort. It is a song that represents the dynamics of the album as a whole. Songs mutate and grow with a subtlety akin to Brian Eno’s landmark Ambient 1: Music for Airports.
Additionally, Into the Great Wide Yonder is much more vocal-centric than The Last Resort, which featured a few distorted and chopped vocal tracks and used them more rhythmically than melodically.
On “Sycamore Feeling,” the new album’s first single, Trentemøller lets guest vocalist Marie Fisker’s smoky voice run free across his placid guitar strumming. The track marries the heartbeat of minimal techno with the meditations of an acoustic guitarist, creating a full band sound that hasn’t been heard in his music before.
English singer Fyfe Dangerfield (Guillemots) and Danish singers Josephine Philip (Darkness Falls) and Solveig Sandnes also add enrapturing vocals on a few other tracks, and the result is no less stunning.
“I wrote the songs with their voices in mind,” Trentemøller says. “They contributed lyrics and melodies. It’s inspiring to have another artist to work with. The singer’s input gives the whole album a special vibe that I could not come up with alone.”
No matter how much a song meanders in the beginning, it always finds a home in a groove, the musical reference point that gently guides a track to a crescendo and subsequent resolution. The album gives structure to ambiance and life to electronics, two things that make it extremely difficult to push Trentemøller into any genre.
It challenges what we expect to hear when we listen to an electronic record, and it forces us to wonder where a producer becomes a musician. Trentemøller plans to tour on this album across America and Europe, and it seems impossible for him to play these songs alone. This could be the start of a shift in Trentemøller’s identity, from solitary composer to lauded bandleader.
We will never grow out of our need to categorize what we hear. There is simply so much music that it’s impossible to sift through it without some sort of organizational system. But artists like Trentemøller will always be looking to expand our idea of what an electronic album — or any album, for that matter — can be.