Reviewed by Dominique Leone (Pitchfork)
Hrvatski's company in the endeavor to bring out the "humanity" in electronic music includes recent faves The Books, The Notwist and the perennially hip Mouse on Mars. However, despite the organic source material that goes into his music, he actually belongs to an eccentric breed of one-man digital alchemists like Fennesz and Ekkehard Ehlers. Hrvatski (born Keith Fullerton Whitman) might have a background in freeform guitar skronk and amplifier noise, but his methods betray a fascination with the synthetic and processed. In fact, he studied ethnomusicology at Berklee, and while that may not mean much to non-musos, it does expose the contradiction of someone who would be writing academic treatises on the importance of preserving indigenous folk music if he weren't so interested in fucking with Winston Brothers breaks.
1998's Oiseaux 1996-1998 found Hrvatski running his breaks fascination into the ground, and then some. By no means was the album repetitive, though it could be maddeningly skittish, as if his rule of thumb was to make sure no two measures of music were identical. As a result, some tracks that might have been jams in their first drafts became baroque symphonettes, perhaps more impressive than viscerally moving. That said, it was a detail freak's fantasy, and it prompted many frustrated fans to wait patiently for the official follow-up.
Swarm & Dither is the result of almost four years of waiting, experimenting, writing, and more waiting. By Hrvatski's own admission, a lot has changed since his last full-length offering, and this record is a culmination of tracks record over the duration. Because of that, the sound is often reminiscent of his last record, most notably on the handful of tracks recorded just after its completion. The newer stuff uses a different pallet of sounds, but is still noticeably in his style, with restless beat-shifting and tendency for acoustic intervention in a medium dominated by computer generated blips.
The opener, "Vatstep DSP" (a fan fave since its 1999 debut as a Kid606 "remix"), plays a similar role as "Routine Exercise" did on Oiseaux: that of the hardcore jam. Beginning with an explosion of swirling hard drive-feedback and radio static, it launches into a beat at once complex and goofy-- imagine Merrie Melodies IDM. Hrvatski's speak-and-spell vocal might be the funniest thing ever to appear on a laptop-composed record, and the kitten samples are on point. Similarly, "2nd Zero Fidelity Mandible Investigation" manages to transcend its inherently convoluted construction and oompah beat to reveal remarkable attention to detail. Check the tambourine borrowed from the first album; watch that oozing synth patch; listen in to over-the-bar beat displacements. The only drawback-- and a minor one, really-- is that both of these tracks sound like they could have been on Oiseaux.
The digital soundscape that develops into "Paint It Black" represents the other side of Swarm & Dither, wherein Hrvatski works in the same laptop-acoustic hybrid as fellow fusionists Fennesz and The Books. The first half of this tune is not the Rolling Stones song at all, but a contemplative guitar figure with assorted glitch effects. When the proper tune starts in, with a drastically altered lead vocal featuring dissonant auto-harmonizing, the effects threaten to overtake the arrangement but never quite do. "Carrot (Hrvatski's Night Vision)" uses this juxtaposition to even better effect, as acoustic guitar and electric piano act as foundation for a solemn, wistful clarinet line. The heavy loop in the background and various effects hardly detract from the general ambience.
Where the record might misfire for some listeners is when Hrvatski abandons breaks and beats entirely, as on tunes like "Anesthetize Thineself". If you're impatient, you might miss the gorgeous extended outro with guitar and synth, because the first half is almost random distorto-glitch along the lines of particularly anti-social Warp. And on "Echoes", you'll need an ear sympathetic to manic piano accents as the track uses that sound exclusively to flesh out polyrhythmic pandemonium, and leads immediately to the hyperactive, sometimes jarring "EWC4".
The record ends with a straight band version of Swedish space-rockers Trad Gras och Stenar's "Tegenborg". The rollicking, cheerful strains of this tune sound almost comically displaced on this record, and yet there's something to it. Swarm & Dither makes vital noise out of some very automated processes, and perhaps ending the album so straightforwardly says something about the ideas behind this stuff. You might assume most new electronic music is devoid of that old-fashioned human emotion, but Hrvatski's music offers evidence that it can be both intellectual and inviting.
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