Venetian Snares (real name Aaron Funk) has made a career out of confounding expectations and acting up on the fringes of electronic music, and yet ‘Traditional Synthesizer Music’ – at least in name – sounds like an exercise in conformity. Each piece on the album was developed by Funk using a modular synth, and if there’s anything at all to be deduced from the title, and the retro sleeve design, it's the notion that this is how the most memorable early electronic music was presented.
This was music made by nerdy, professorial types stood in front of vast boxes, wires and patch cables trailing from one module to another in seemingly random fashion, with every sound being the product of minor tweaks of dials, or switching out patch cables from one jack socket to another; an era long before software synths and iPad apps allowed a new generation of nerdy types to bash out effortless electronic pieces on the bus home from college.
Funk’s concern here was how to humanise the sound of the modular system, something of an oxymoron when you consider how the user of such gargantuan machines was never a mere bystander in what the synth was producing anyway, every sound being a symbiotic product of the machine and what the player did with the merest touch of a dial or control.
On paper, then, ‘Traditional Synthesizer Music’ sounds like an academic project, a serious endeavour from an artist normally known for mucking around with convention. And while the idea of the album might sound earnest, the music here still retains the normal amount of wry humour and ambivalence that has characterised the Venetian Snares back catalogue, whether that be through bonkers titles (‘She Married A Chess Computer In The End’, ‘Paganism Ratchets’) or just a generally off-kilter approach to sonic assembly.
Wonkiness is a given here, whether that be through slightly discordant sequences playing off one another, manic arpeggios, or the rapid acceleration that concludes the opener, ‘Dreamt Person’ – a technique that recalls Rick Wakeman’s showy progginess and the faceless synth classicism of Larry Fast’s Synergy releases. When rhythms moves from trace pulses to actual beats, as on the tender melodic tones of ‘Everything About You Is Special’ or the sci-fi spatiality of ‘Slightly Bent Fork Tong’, those beats are hyperactive, skittish and entirely in keeping with the leftfield electronic scene that Funk sprang to prominence from, with noises reminiscent of The Clangers at their most opaque and beats that render you incapacitated with their sheer audacity.
For synth geeks who make the characters on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ seem positively normal, expansive gems like ‘You And Shayna’ or the ‘Selected Ambient Works’-era Aphex stylings of ‘Goose And Gary’ will be like mana from heaven, and it's hard not to get animated by the sheer human endeavour involved with trying to keep a gargantuan modular synth under control. Throughout the record there's the vague notion that Funk is taking a swipe at the synth fetishism that's made modular systems achingly hip again in recent years. Traditional in essence it may well be, but it's done with arched eyebrows and a knowing smirk.
Words: Mat Smith (@mjasmith)
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