PRINT February 1997



In today’s postrave, postalternative, posteverything global music scene, anonymity has become a virtual prerequisite for success. DJs are Spooky and Shadow-like, rappers are Tricky, junglists produce under various monikers. Germany’s OVAL have made all the right obscurantist moves to assure themselves of digital hipness: the hard-to-find CDs, the disposable minimalist chic of their cardboard packaging, the garbled poststructuralist theory. Their recording methods raise familiar issues involving the connections among authorship, ownership, and linearity in the digital age, and their particular version of ambient is assembled largely from processes of a curiously mechanical unpredictability—layered glitches recorded from defaced CDs.

Despite such avant-garde methods, it was the skill with which Oval used a rather traditional tactic—melody versus noise—on their first release Systemisch (Thrill Jockey) that elevated their music beyond the empty formalism that mars most ambient. Their originality lay in bringing the abrasive pleasures of that contrast to ambient’s edge-of-hearing context. Rather than create a wall of sound via stormy clouds of feedback and fey melodies à la the Velvet Underground or My Bloody Valentine, Oval subtly counterposed minimal chord developments with harsh static patterns and skittering rhythms. At times melody was made by static; at times, by rhythm; at times, the static was the rhythm. Structure was always tangible, but it was never without surprise.

You can play Oval’s more recent 94 Diskont (Thrill Jockey) as background noise, but, unlike most ambient music, you won’t be able to ignore it. The music hums, crackles, vibrates; quavering analog tones pulse and feed back on themselves. It’s a dirty music made from digital translucence, somehow managing to evoke both information systems crashing and a deeply whimsical human presence. That sense of humor can be found on both CDs. The title of the Systemisch cut “Gabba Nation” might signal bone-crushing road-drill BPMs, but the track actually sounds like a child’s mechanical carousel spinning out of control. Despite their deliberate facelessness, Oval have stamped an arch personality onto their music by letting the machines take over.

Ben Williams