No Oval record comes without some accompanying discourse, so of course Markus Popp’s first record in seven years comes framed by statements. He says that he has spent the years away wood-shedding, building up his chops on a new instrument, an off-the-rack PC. Eat your heart out, Steve Jobs. But the use of that jazz-age word for practice, while meant to position Popp as a musician rather than a conceptualist, opens the door to considering this music in light of another jazz phenomenon. Could the man who brought us glitch opting to play real drums and guitars be the electronic analogue to a free jazz musician returning to playing standards so you know he really can play?
The breakthrough Oval records were all about subverting hardware with software; Popp defaced electronic media such as CDs and then used self-devised programs, sometimes running with minimal intervention, to manufacture music out of the sounds of their breakdown. O‘s method is quite different. Rather than setting the software in motion, Popp played guitars, drums, and their virtual equivalents on the PC. Gone are the immersive layers of Systemisch and 94 Diskont, the Technicolor garishness Ovalprocess and Ovalcommers, and the grimy blown-speaker distortion of So. The new Oval sounds clean and quick, with each pluck, quiver, and beat standing out in stark relief. But it’s neither monolithic not monotonous. Popp has sequenced the playback of his comeback as a process of reduction. The weave of drum, guitar, and synth lines on side one of Oh, the EP that preceded O, sounded close to a group performance. While moments like that pop up on O‘s first disc, the drums seem more integrated into the music’s linear progress so that it feels less like a band playing than an on-screen representation of one. As the album progresses the sounds-per-track grow fewer, the drums disappear, and the tunes grow shorter, until you’re practically in ringtone territory (Popp takes this concept all the way on a couple of free, download-only Ringtone EPs. Many of O‘s tracks sound nothing like old Oval, and most remarkably some of them seem to reference other music. Synthesized accordion voices make “Kukicha” sound like a videogame version of French café music; with its coarse texture and bent notes, “Swiss Summer” sounds like a keyboard reduction of beer commercial rock. But others of these short tracks establish that the closest links between 1990s Oval and the current version. The ways string harmonics climb a short scale and repeat on “Rosammie” isn’t too different from the way Popp arranged glitch progressions of Systemisch.
At 70 tracks (76 if you get the extra vinyl/download bonus tracks that come with the double LP,) O is a lot to swallow; play it all the way through and it could take you months to digest it. But the tunes seem to like being approached a couple at a time. Popp can pack a lot of information into a couple minutes, so that each piece feels fully realized. He may be playing to the cell phone generation by making short, sweet airs, but by leveling such a barrage of sound (107 if you count Oh, Ringtones, Ringtones II, and the LP/DL version of O) he’s also fitting right into the practices of a culture swamping itself with information overload. So even though Popp’s new sound palette seems like a step back, the way he uses it is as au courant as an oil-soaked pelican. O is not a retro move, but the work of an artist dealing with the now.