It’s a discordant and perhaps even disorienting series of sounds that open On, a combination of grinding industrial rhythms, sampled keyboard orchestrations, what I think is a Japanese Koto, shouted and unintelligible voices – as introductions go, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is at the very least effective, and as Markus Mehr is a both skilled and highly regarded electronic composer, an announcement of sorts: prepare for a shuddering, near chaotic, kaleidoscopic experience as Mehr challenges our and his own preconceptions of what “electronica” is, what it represents and of what his instrumentation can achieve.
A musician with a background in assorted rock outfits who chose to turn his abilities to experimental electronics, Mehr is giving very little away as far as his influences and inspirations, and aside from the fact that he lives in and has performed around half of his live performances to date in the southern German city of Augsburg. He is one of those performers twho would prefer his music expressed what he wants us to know, and if I were to write that he combines the innovative approach to keyboard and other sounds of Hauschka with the urban influenced rhythmic aptitudes of Tarwater and the minimalistic To Roccoco Rot, then that only reveals what I suppose are possible direct influences from some of his contemporaries. Doubtlessly, Markus Mehr is aware of these and others, but reading reviews for info I find his work compared to artists such as Eluvium and William Basinski of whom I have never heard anything of. I don’t, at least nowadays, hear albums such as this very often.
What I’ve found out about Markus Mehr I mostly found on other review sites. Mehr played in several rock bands until deciding to take his music in an electronic direction and it’s perhaps this background which provides On with its definition and focus and which stops its more effusive passages drifting into aural indulgences. Utilising synths, samplers, tape and field recordings, Mehr’s more developed sound collages are deceptively ambient. Underneath the sampled film soundtracks and waves of tone generation, there’s a perceptible depth and even solidity around which Mehr creates his soundscapes, and he knows to vary the tempos of his tracks in parallel with the soundlayers. So, given that On is the second part of a trilogy of albums – first part In was released earlier this year and Off is expected in early 2013 – Markus Mehr very clearly has much to bring to us and after the abrasively disjointed opening, the seven tracks that make up the rest of the album take more subdued, reflective paths.
“Flaming Youth”, “Tunnels” and notably “Only For A While” are compositions that Mehr would probably wish to extend into much longer pieces as he has done with the first part of the trilogy, which consists of only two tracks. Mehr’s instruments produce vast waves of sound, repeated and interspersed with only limited interjections from his array of sound effects and these are displays of controlled instrumental power that some listeners might compare to Tangerine Dream although again that only reveals a part of Mehr’s ability to separate his choral and orchestral samples from their origins and while many electronic performers make a point of bringing their technology actually into their work, for the most part Mehr is only letting us hear what he wants us to, with the machinery kept purposefully in the background. “Duck Became Swan” and “Olympia” move away from the more involved ambient form, faster and using more varied soundbites and with the latter track perhaps a nod in the direction of Tarwater, while “Monks On The Beach” was, if its title is entirely literal, recorded on a hot summer seaside afternoon where a monastery choir found itself interviewed for a TV news item, while singing, and its the one track on the album where Mehr’s juxtaposition of competing sounds is purposefully revealed as exactly that.
Within its own boundaries, experimental music of this kind needs a defined skill to maintain its momentum. Markus Mehr certainly possesses that and On is a display of both his technical initiative and ability to conduct his material into a form that’s at some distance removed from its sources. Mehr creates soundscapes of epic grandeur, intersperses them with bursts of pure noise, then adds touches of absurdist humor to further complicate his already intricate creations. In what can sometimes appear as a musical form that’s somehow limited by its own ProTools, imaginations such as those of Markus Mehr are always required.