Conversations surrounding Monolake tend to get a little weird. The Berlin minimal techno producer creates a precise type of computer music that approaches Raster Noton-level of refinement. His ends as a musician seem to gravitate toward prestigious production concerns – a painstakingly devoted and academic exploration of the full sonic spectrum – rather than any type of unruly emotional communication. Robert Henke helped design the popular production and performance software, Abelton Live, which should give you some idea of where the man’s goals lie as an artist. It all seems a little daunting and uninviting at first glance, but Ghosts, Monolake’s eighth record, is one of his most approachable and organic outings to date.
Monolake’s 2009 record Silence was a noticeable reassessment of Henke’s languishing, shuttering mechanical dub pulsations found on previous work as the grit and subtle drive of bass music started to squeeze its way into his minimal foundations. Henke also hinged his unabashedly synthetic textures around a number of exceedingly tactile field recordings, creating a stark-yet-sensual contrast between nature and machine. Ghosts seems to pick up where Silence left off, but here the music’s hue has almost been completely drained of color and the arrangements have been internalized even further. If anything, Monolake’s approach has been knotted tighter, the music’s sonic thrusts sharpening and deepening in order to give a single minor clanking percussion loop or caffeinated sub-bass synth grind complete attention.
The BPMs have also been ratcheted up a few notches. The title track opens the record with a headlong 2-step bouncing around an ominous, growling bass wobble lurking below like a swampy sea monster while a robotic voice chants whispered nihilistic assurances. It’s followed by “Toku,” its cloaked, wispy drones, fluttering like broad black curtains unsettled by a cold wind, are wrapped around a mass of cascading field recordings like a number of hallow jars falling to clatter against the floor, focusing on the resulting tiny clinking vibrations. The individual sounds are given enough room for their subtleties to become more centered than simple intricacies. There’s not much more to the meditative beginning of “Afterglow” than its clicking hi-hat, whole note dubstep synth pulses, and hissing bursts of static. The track’s centerpiece seems to be the subtle decay of the woodblock snare rather than anything graspable and assured. The emphasis of these tiny, in-between details, production or otherwise, makes the listener feel incredibly small and despite Henke’s pointed, almost aggressive restraint the record’s atmosphere is exceedingly thick.
The focus does seem to be on the more rhythmic side of things rather than Monolake’s usual slowly coagulating landscapes. Silence wasn’t afraid to get exultant at times as it piled on its golden, melodic samples, but Ghosts is content to wallow in ever-ebbing darkness. The most bombastic it ever gets is on a track like “Lilith” or “The Existence of Time,” the latter’s drum & bass tempo rattling with an oozing, eardrum-tickling bass synth. But elsewhere on excellent cuts like “Phenomenom” and “Hitting the Surface” an oily, pulsing ambience lulls the proceedings into a leering neutrality. The former is especially terrifying, its off-kilter kick and soothing two-chord bass hook locking behind a single whittled synth pulse like a tiny ghostly light trembling on and off in the dark foggy distance. That’s all before the mournful, haunted-house drones start to descend like shrieking spirits and the drum loop completely cuts out.
Ghosts‘ album sleeve shows a striking image of a jungle almost completely obfuscated by mist, the sun nowhere to be found. There’s an odd implication of escape in the picture. The record unfolds like an oppressive search for a way out of its haunted, apocalyptic atmosphere devoid of life and light and full of lingering sounds concealed in a craggy, timeless haze. It’s a scary record. Monolake’s music has always tended toward shadowy colors and unconscious settings, but never has he sounded so unnerving (and immediate) as he does on Ghosts. “Foreign Objects” is the perfect closer with its tumbling, confrontational rattle of sharpened snares and climatic rise of vocalized synths, pointing toward a not so successful end in finding an exit from the album’s suffocating clutches.