Review of Chessa [12k1030]

Stylus (US)

I like press releases. They’re just so optimistic, so filled with the hope and promise of an expectant record company certain they are releasing a musical gem for all to hear. If we take press releases at their word, each one of the thousands of releases every year is destined to become a classic work by one of the truly great artists working today, certain to engage your senses and change your outlook on life. You have to admit: there’s something engaging about such manipulative optimism. Of course, all this falls away once you actually listen to most albums and realize that only a handful can even come close to living up to those marketing expectations.

The 12k press release for Shuttle358’s Chessa includes its share of hyperboles and horn-tooting, but within those accolades lurks an unusually lucid and honest voice. This voice speaks loudest when describing this work directly: Chessa is the third release from [Dan] Abrams’ Shuttle358 moniker on 12k and he continues to do what he does best: attempt to move microsound away from the world of theory and towards absolute real life.”

Two phrases stand out for me here. The first is “do what he does best.” While it trumps up Abrams’ talent, it also admits that Chessa isn’t groundbreaking; that is, you won’t find anything here that you haven’t heard before. The second phrase that stands out to me is the reference to moving “towards absolute real life.” This is a bit abstract, and it makes more sense in the context of the full release, but it can be neatly summed up by saying that Abrams electronic experiments are grounded in human emotions. Again, however, the subtext here is that his previous works were also grounded in conveying particular emotional states. In short, the press release is telling us that Chessa is basically the same as the first two Shuttle358 albums released on 12k (OptimalLP and Frame), only better.

And you know what? That’s absolutely right. I’ve long admired Abrams’ ability to transform the various clicks and snips that comprise the “microsound” palate of sounds into sweeping, delicate audio portraits. His earlier works were, indeed, very emotional efforts in the sense that the sputtering, elliptical drones and gurgling waves of, say, “Lyndon Tree” work less as ideas and more as living, breathing entities capable of being interpreted in different ways depending upon how and why one listens.

Chessa continues these emotion-laden atmospherics. The eleven songs here are replete with the same spinning sine waves, sputtering bleeps and clicks, and (especially) lilting synthesizer melodies that effectively comprise the Shuttle358 sound. However, each of these elements have been refined, fleshed-out, and improved upon here, so that the transitions from the delicate melodies to the sputtering noise and sweet guitar fragments on the title track seem even more effortless here than on (say) Frame‘s “Sequence.” There’s a maturity here that is lacking on Abrams’ earlier efforts, as though he’s taken all that he finds most favorable about his own sounds and cut away all the rest. What’s left is the same emotional heart that ran through his earlier works, only richer, sharper, and more distinct.

Take the fourth track, “Duh.” It begins with echoing thumps and some aberrant sprinkler sounds bouncing around. At first, the thumps are rhythmic while the sprinkler sounds are all over the place; at some point, however, these two sounds change places, so the sprinklers are rhythmic and the thumps are all over the place. This repeats several times, as other sounds (long synth lines and other stuttering fragments) float above and around the core dance. And that’s what it is: a dance, each sound taking turns leading. It’s incredibly simple in structure and execution, but understanding how the song is put together is far less interesting than experiencing and feeling this dance. It brings to my mind images of sleepy summer afternoons, naps under a cool tree, and distant children playing with water (a sprinkler?). It’s a song that suggests playfulness, joy, optimism, and even a little hope. When was the last time you heard those words associated with 12k Records?

“Duh” is just one example of the many ways that Chessa takes Abrams’ core musical ideas and refines them and improves upon them to create works that are beautiful, fascinating, and greater than the micro-sum of their parts. This is the work of an artist entirely comfortable in his medium, eager to apply the lessons of past efforts but aware enough of his own strengths and weaknesses not to reach too far or aim too high.

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