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BEAST - Ens Music Album Reviews

After two astounding EPs last year, half of the droning duo Mountains returns with an intimate, affectionate album inspired by the birth of his child.

To paraphrase Kraftwerk, listening to Ens—the first full-length album from musical polymath and visual artist Koen Holtkamp as Beast—means contemplating the humanity of machine music. That issue is especially relevant these days at the intersection of much electronic, experimental, and modern classical music, where technology can often sink into or overload the mix. Holtkamp has operated in this space for nearly two decades, but the balance of virtues he achieved on a pair of 2017 EPs as Beast seemed to reframe the conversation entirely.

Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 retained the sweeping investigations of sonic space and tonal juxtapositions that Holtkamp has long pursued as part of the duo Mountains and in an extensive list of solo projects and collaborations. Holtkamp mapped music so broadly that meaning often dissipated into atmosphere; there’s an entire ecosystem of this kind of post-post-rock, not-really-classical, quasi-electronic music thriving in corners of Bandcamp. Yet Beast’s first seven pieces, created as soundtracks for Holtkamp’s laser projections, transcended the cliches of this environment. By abandoning string instruments and de-emphasizing his fascination with drone and dissonance, Holtkamp foregrounded a pulse as precise as the visuals it accompanied. Rhythmic lines wrapped around each other like digital ragas; though they were some of the least human sounds of Holtkamp’s career, they brimmed with deeply soulful movement and melody. The best kind of audio riddle, it was as if Steve Reich’s hand-played loops and Carl Craig’s synth arpeggios had merged.

On the surface, Ens exists in the same deeply electronic, heavily rhythmic sandbox, but human fingerprints are easy to discern here. Acoustic guitars help shape downsized compositions like “Boketto” and “Edb,” speaking to a more handmade listening experience. And for good reason: Holtkamp says Ens is a response to the birth of his child, an occasion that traditionally arouses a deeply intimate inspiration. Many of Holtkamp’s choices on Ens dovetail with the scenario of creating private music for young ears or shaping environments attuned to those needs. Closer “For Otto” invokes the wonder, exhaustion and apprehension of an old home taking on a new life not only with its title but also with its layers of treated sound, broad keyboard chords, and grey noise beneath a lightly pulsing music-box melody. The crux of loving the very domestic Ens, then, is how to engage with a project whose very inhumanity recently made it exceptional.

Depending on one’s inclination for the melodically gifted “pop” side of the classic IDM spectrum—WARPists such as Plaid and Plone, the first Morr Music releases, the Four Tet of Pause or Rounds—there is plenty to love on Ens. “Paprika Shorts” begins with a continuous synth-keyboard figure and adds a plucked acoustic string as a beat before a macro-processor sews all the rhythmic and tonal threads together into a gorgeous tapestry suited for folktronica purists. “Color Feel” folds an instrumental line that evokes both a harpsichord and a kora into a trotting piano rhapsody. Synths underpin the structure and add a futurist patina. “Color Feel” is the closest that Ens comes to democratizing propulsion for both concert hall and club.

It seems unfair that the primary drawback of Ens is a contempt bred by familiarity, especially when the inspiration for these seven pieces is so joyous. Yet there’s no doubt that where Beast’s EPs offered what felt like fresh answers to half-century-old questions about the relationship between composition and technology, Ens tables the queries, at least temporarily, for a strictly personal statement. However you approach its aesthetic beauty, that is a much less satisfying response.

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