Before I even begin talking about this album, I need to address the elephant in the room. Or at least the vast and darkly beautiful techno monster in the room. Yes, Black Noise is the follow-up to Pantha du Prince’s 2007 album, This Bliss, an album regarded by many as being one of the finest techno full-lengths of the last decade. It’s also a record that means a lot to me personally, and one that I’ve spent many hours bewitched by, so any approach to this album would always fall under that shadow. However, the more I listened to the new album, the more I consciously separated the two. Despite being recognisably Pantha du Prince in sound, Black Noise is very different in approach. I find that This Bliss plays like a single epic track, a symphony for chimes and bass. It’s a record to sink into the blackness with – turn off your mind, relax and float into space. In contrast, the new album sees him explore more territory and pull more styles into his orbit.
It also comes with a concept of sorts attached, and one that’s more than a little arcane. It began when our hero Hendrik Weber (the man behind the moniker) and a couple of chums went for a holiday in the Swiss Alps to take field recordings, muse on the nature/technology dualism, and do whatever else techno dudes do when they need a break from their humdrum lives dressing up as robots. Next door to where they lived was an enormous pile of debris, the remains of a landslide that had buried an entire village. Like Van Dyke Parks, Weber can obviously take a concept from anything, because this is where Black Noise got its start. The gorgeous, evocative image on the album cover is a reference to this – a village burning in the midst of an impossibly bucolic scene. Dig a little deeper into the concept, and you start tripping over stuff about “highly speculative acoustic architecture” and how silence is music and how this mysterious ‘black noise’ can be heard like a sonic omen before a natural disaster. It sounds an awful lot like pretentious bullshit, but rather than collapsing under its own pseudo-intellectual weight, the whole endeavour actually works. The field recordings function as interstitial moments to tie the different tracks together into the creak and hum of the natural world. It makes the record feel a little haunted;tracks emerge slightly clouded from the clatter and drone and fade back into the noise once they’re done.
It opens with those beautiful chimes he loves so much, slowly drifting out of the fog. It takes a couple of minutes for the beats to drop, those percolating micro-percussive clicks and pops, and then the clatter of the field recordings dies away and it’s all so crystalline it takes your breath away. It’s like watching ice bloom, like the air is alight around you and that the world is more beautiful than you can bear. It’s like stumbling upon the picture from the album cover in more peaceful days, before the fire took hold. In some ways, it feels like a coda to This Bliss – a final, lovely parting moment to bridge that album and this. The two tracks that follow see things become fragmented, those chains of shimmering chimes begin to crack, the beats rupturing rather than elevating. The percussion swarms and shudders, shaking the melodies off before they take root. On “The Splendour,” the unease is even more palpable; the bass hums malevolently and the chimes are reduced to atonal splinters. Things have become unsettled – the black noise is everywhere and the smell of smoke is in the air. Yet despite all this, there’s still a cold beauty to it, melodies heard on the slopes of the mountains, something singing in the ice.
And then there’s the Panda Bear track. In all honestly, I wasn’t rapt when I first heard the news about this one. Not only was Pantha du Prince leaving the lovely, rainswept fields of Dial Records for the hipster haven of Rough Trade, he was collaborating with #1 hipster Noah Lennox. How could this end well? Except once more, the strange alchemy at work in the music of Pantha du Prince saves the day. By the time, Lennox’s vocal is a dizzy swirl at the center of a cavernous house stomp, I’m starting to believe I could love an Animal Collective album, so long as it sounded just like this. But as surprising and fantastic as the Panda Bear collaboration is, it’s handily outdone by the immense double header that acts as the album’s centerpiece. “A Nomad’s Retreat” is his purest Detroit moment; pulling from the doped house of Theo Parrish and the sleek night drive travelogues of Maurizio’s “M4,” it’s crying out for a Mayday mix (please?). It contains one of those basslines, a freeway soaring through the silken night and out into interstellar space, where the colours of the galaxy stain the sky. It climaxes with this epic, majestic rush that sends shivers down my spine. “Satellite Snyper” trades in the equally epic, synthetic strings propelling it along as the beats shift uneasily beneath it, chimes bubbling under the surface before they burst out in this utterly euphoric melody that’ll make your head spin. When it hits about 2:40 in, it’s as magical as music gets.
In the latter half of the album, things take a slightly more relaxed turn (after a reworked “Behind the Stars” from last year’s 12″, which still contains a bassline that will swallow you whole). The delicate, shimmering “Bohemian Forest” and the choral loveliness of “Welt Am Draht” both work themselves up into a sweat, like ambient music that has a pulse and draws breath, and the closing “Es Schneit” sees the snow close in, shivering chimes and vocal coos swallowed up in the hum of black noise, of the creak of the world as it spins. As the album draws to a close, it feels like we’re left with the calm after the storm, once destruction has been wrought and nature reasserts itself. The buildings still smolder in the shadow of the mountains, but all that remains is silence.
I went into this album with trepidation, half convinced I’d chalk it up as the first big disappointment of the year. Yet it didn’t only sweep my reservations away almost immediately, it made a convert of me, ready to proselytise at the nearest opportunity. To return to that almost unavoidable comparison: Black Noise isn’t another This Bliss. It’s not an attempt to recreate the wonder of that album, and it doesn’t need to be. I can take that journey any time I’d like. It is, however, another remarkable album from Pantha du Prince, and proof that he is one of the finest musicians working in the medium these days.