The return of the turn of the century’s most artistically successful and influential electronic musician is not something to take lightly, and Markus Popp, the man synonymous with Oval, comes back in typically challenging but grand style with a 2-CD, 70-track effort. After a nine year hiatus from releasing music as Oval, some thought the accumulation of technological advances would require Popp to radically redefine his approach, seeing how his approach was becoming more rooted in his specially built software environment, Oval Process. This oft-circulated idea is pulled out and brandished any time an electronic musician takes a sizable break between releases, but makes little sense considering the fact that the intervening nine years saw nobody advance Popp’s achievements as they stood, and he could have picked up right where he left off with his old 9 year-old technology, orchestrating beautifully dense storms of electronic noise and melody. Popp seems to have anticipated this line of thinking, ditching any sort of bleeding edge technology altogether and opting instead to produce his tracks with a stock PC with stock sounds and plugins. While some might see that as an evasion of Oval’s essential trajectory, it gave Popp the room to reinvent himself as an instrumental performer and musician. This new combination of limitation and development has resulted in what amounts to a new musical language, one far from the old Oval in sound, but which retains the essential spirit and effect of Oval-ness.
Before considering this continuity in Oval-ness, there are big-time distinctions to be reported between Oval past and present. If anything, old Oval was an exercise in fullness, leaving no areas of white canvas unmolested by the digital spread, regardless of whether the recording was serene (94 Diskont) or cacophonous (Ovalcommers). O, on the other hand, is spacious, dry and prickly, exchanging the maximalist sensory inputs of past work to produce a sort of pastoral micro jazz, a mix of warm synths, brittle guitar sounds, and blurts of noise. It is the most open sounding thing Popp has done by a long shot, maintaining an airy feeling by limiting the arrangements to four or five instrumental tracks, tops. A hot trap set even pops up from time to time, not really to keep time, but to add color and movement with breaks. Popp plays the depth game, but he plays it in a way that seems new. His microsounds are zoomed in tighter than anything I’ve heard, the popping attack and curling decay now visible and tactile, like viewing a strand of hair under a microscope. When he decides to draw the zoom back, he does so dramatically, with the bigness of the booming trap kit or the panned whir of a passing jetstream. When Popp works with these intense contrasts, O shines brightest.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is in how Oval-y this sounds in spite of a completely different sound palette and a complete reworking of the creative process. Popp’s ears still organize sound as a field of surging elements, finding patterns in interference and focal points in unlikely juxtapositions. His melodic phrases still twinkle, build, and crest in quick succession, and drones still provide the anchoring to his frameworks. The results still feel simultaneously discombobulating but strangely emotional.
Amid the rush of experiencing Oval’s brilliant new sonic environment, there are still a few unanswered questions that hang around the periphery of this release. If O’s 50-track second disc is an attempt to compose ring-tone styled miniatures for the short attention spans of an ultra-wired world, why release it as part of a gargantuan double album? The approach seems to suggest a completely different method of release, and the lengthy tracklist results in a slight lack of feeling of essential. And while it seems that Popp is attempting to distance his process from the Deist compositional style of his previous output, there is still a pretty big black box that he is operating within, even as he now ‘performs” on an instrument that he spent a few years practicing on. Is the instrument his computer or a guitar? Is that a real trap set? How did he compose these tracks? What the hell is he making all those noises with? These nagging questions are far from lethal. They ultimately leave the listener curious and engaged, and the individual tracks resonate with a sense of the mysterious. This is a huge blog of music, and you may not want to sit down and listen to O from start to finish very often. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an artistic triumph. Popp has once again authored a unique and compelling work. How you decide to sort through it and work it into your own life is up to you.