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Caterina Barbieri - Born Again in the Voltage Music Album Reviews

After the complex programming of last year’s Patterns of Consciousness, the Berlin-based composer explores new realms with her modular synthesizer, incorporating cello, voice, and doom-laden drones.

The modular synthesizer is experiencing a renaissance. A new generation of fans has embraced the instrument, revitalizing the careers of old masters like Suzanne Ciani and Morton Subotnick and heralding new innovations like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s kaleidoscopic pop. As modular systems become more affordable for young producers, they have permeated the electronic scene from the dancefloor to the chill-out room. Since releasing her breakthrough album, Patterns of Consciousness, last year, the Italian-born, Berlin-based virtuoso Caterina Barbieri has become one of the modular synth’s brightest and most singular new voices.

Created using the deceptively minimal set-up of just sequencer and harmonic oscillator, Patterns of Consciousness found Barbieri employing light-speed arpeggios and repetitive synth melodies designed to scramble the listener’s sense of perception. The subtlest variations deliver an overwhelming impact, while mind-altering, algorithmically complex patterns allow her to play with perceptual expectations. But none of that immaculate math accounts for the cathartic and often deeply emotional weight Patterns shows in moments like 16-minute closer “Gravity That Binds.” Barbieri’s new album, Born Again in the Voltage, was recorded from 2014 to 2015, prior to Patterns, but it offers an equally compelling perspective.

If each of Patterns’ alternately maximalist and meditative soundscapes acted as universes unto themselves, the four tracks on Voltage feel like one carefully arranged suite. The album opens far from any kosmische tones with “Human Developers,” where Barbieri employs a Buchla 200 modular system (her weapon of choice throughout Voltage) to produce sinister drones more in line with Dylan Carlson’s guitar on Earth 2. Antonello Manzo’s cello only adds to the doom-metal atmosphere as Barbieri’s drones crash and rumble like a rocket engine before the heaviness boils up into clusters of melody. Lift off.

At the heart of the album are two tracks showing Barbieri’s skill in sculpting drones to convey tremendous feeling. A tense, mournful duet with Manzo’s cello on “Rendering Intuitions” picks up the pieces following the quaking opener and then rises into the brighter “How to Decode an Illusion,” which reveals a slowly evolving melody. The track’s raw synth tone and gentle progression give it a quality similar to the aliens’ greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while waves of white noise hiss and hover in the background, far enough away to seem soft. It’s a striking shift from the album’s opening.

Barbieri’s trajectory over those first three tracks is as carefully plotted as Patterns’ algorithms, but Voltage’s joyous finale comes as an unexpected explosion. The jubilant nine-minute track “We Access Only a Fraction” bursts with dizzying patterns and surging energy, creating the kind of overwhelming rush the album previously held back—and out of which comes Barbieri’s own voice. It’s the first instance of singing in any of the composer’s recorded work (her debut, Vertical, includes a spoken-word contribution from fellow composer Ellen Arkbro), but her featherlight vocalizations dance over the whirling arpeggios as if they’ve always belonged there. It’s an astonishing moment, a track pulled from the past that leaves her future excitingly open. It all confirms Born Again in the Voltage as an essential document of contemporary modular-synth music from one of the instrument’s great new explorers.

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