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Ellen Allien - LISm

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Artist: Ellen Allien

Album: LISm

Label: Bpitch Control

Review date: Mar. 12, 2013

“Have you heard this?” The question I left you with three years ago regarding the sum reaction of a new Ellen Allien release still feels fitting on her seventh album, LISm. There’s little doubt LISm will invoke some kind of reaction from its listeners, for better or worse – it’s the most challenging work of her restless discography.

As I pointed out then, Ellen has long alternated between her innate pop sensibilities (Dust, Orchestra of Bubbles, Berlinette) and her cerebral, experimental side (Sool, Thrills). This falls squarely among the latter, not for the faint of heart still stuck on “Trash Scapes” and definitely not for the even weaker in pursuit of an easy groove.

Ironically, LISm is derived from material made specifically for dancing, though not the kind with which Watergate regulars would be accustomed. In 2010, Allien was approached by choreographers Alexandre Roccoli and Sevérine Rième to compose music for their production “Drama per Musica,” a piece to be performed at the 2011 Spectacles Vivants Festival at the Pompidou in Paris. Roccoli and Rième are both experienced choreographers and came into their own right around the time that Allien was starting out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Roccoli was also in the Last Last collective with Pantha du Prince, so it’s no wonder why Allien seemed like a good fit.

It’s said things went off without a hitch, though no reviews or videos are readily available and the original composition has unhelpfully not been included herein (something to think about for the deluxe reissue). It’s impossible to judge the record in terms of dance performance accompaniment, then, because Ellen couldn’t leave well enough alone. In 2012, she returned to the material with Bpitch signee Thomas Muller (a guy I remember for the Gchat ping in his debut 12” for the label, “Seduction”) and Berlin techno vet Bruno Pronsato to help stretch and smooth out the music to the single-track full-length LISm eventually became.

There is plenty to sink your teeth into during these 44 minutes, though you’ll have to keep track of the clock to know exactly where your favorite section begins and ends. It starts with a simple flute melody, morphs into a repeated guitar line with her chanting “falling” over it, transitions into a cool jazz segment that wouldn’t sound out of place on Karriem Riggins’s Alone Together, peppers sections with Vangelis-esque cosmic synths and the familiar thump of muted Berlin beats, spots a solo piano performance at one point, and ends with some four minutes of bright, optimistic synth-pop melody to balance the organic first quarter and cleanse the palate.

The music is supposed to paint a “spiritual picture” of “profound insight into one’s own emotional world” by way of playing with tonal density and volume as well as style and pace. This is where it fails me. While I can accept that LISm plays like one of Ellen’s most artistically liberal DJ sets and find it interesting from that angle, I have a harder time accepting the thesis without Roccoli and Rième’s visual accompaniment because the music never fully extricates itself from that setting – it’s an album in packaging alone. The music is not enough to reveal a “profound insight” into my emotional world. Quite the opposite, in fact – I find myself engrossed in the world Allien, Muller, Pronsato, and to a lesser extent Roccoli and Rième, have created together. This has naught to do with the listener’s internal monologue and everything to do with how the listener reacts to gradual but frequent sonic change. On an emotional level, LISm is hard to get at.

But I don’t think it’s meant for that sort of music-listener relationship, that kind of attachment and subsequent soul-searching. It is entirely external – this isn’t just about what’s going on in the headphones or speakers just beyond your eardrums, or in the studio, or wondering what was happening on stage when this was initially performed. This is about a much larger potential paradigm shift that we’ve been seeing with Bpitch recently, from Sool and Aérea Negrot’s Arabxilla to Jahcoozi and System of Survival’s Needle and Thread. Their commitment to dancefloor-filler remains beyond question in the context of the 12” for the time being, but their full-lengths have been inching away from the obvious to more thoughtful (and questionable) think pieces. They just recently put out the Where the Wind Blows compilation; I wonder if that isn’t a bookend to their less acclaimed but more variable second period, which would brand LISm as a fresh start and the beginning of a third, even more ambitious period.

LISm, then, is a self-reflection rather than a projection. Ellen Allien’s spiritual picture is an emotionally conflicted world where the tug of war between accessible and experimental has reached a new plateau. Is that a good thing? We don’t know yet, but never mind: If you haven’t, you really should hear this.

By Patrick Masterson

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