I suppose it says a little about how narrow either my tastes or techno’s purview has become over the last few years that when I first listened to Northern Sages I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. Sure, the experimental end of the scene often delivers music that by definition can be complex, strange and difficult to fathom, but more often than not we are dealing with the outpourings of an increasingly academic genre that sometimes feels it owes its existence more to sound laboratories and theory classes in quiet little colleges, and to the influence of modern classical composers, than it does to anything that grew organically out of clubs or the big Midwestern cities.
In fact, one of the reasons I was thrown during my first couple of listens is that Northern Sages isn’t quite the deeply experimental music I thought. While it is certainly a record that takes great pleasure in the thickness of its sound, its bucking of conventions, and its obvious interest in influences a little further flung than the last moody doof-doofer to come at you out of Berlin, its feet – if not its mind – are rooted on the dance floor.
Behind the heavy synth work, the whacked out reverb and the occasionally almost operatic touches are more familiar skeletons. Electro, EBM and deep, acid flecked techno all add heft to the flesh, providing muscle and structure to the more ornate textures. In actual fact, the reclamation of the futurist leanings of modern electro, and reworking it into a far more baroque affair is one of the interesting conceits of the record.
Tunes such as Mjolnir pitches itself somewhere between familiar electro styling and a somewhat more ponderous, almost doom-laden take. While it unfurls slowly, and cloaks much of the tune in a tangled weave of early eighties pomp, it retains a solid focus and drive that alleviates some of the drama of the top end and allowing a more playful mood to energise the piece. Tronitum Domini takes a different, albeit just as effective, route, and winds the groove into the fabric of the lavish, ever so slightly over the top, cinematic textures until it feels like John Carpenter soundtracking a Dario Argento movie. It’s a particularly rich atmosphere, gilded yet faded, and it works a powerful sense of portent above the cavernous beats.
The ideas aren’t quite as successful else where. ASI Kingdom, whilst a great piece of overwrought and gloriously mediaeval, imperious martial music feels a little like a curiosity amongst the tunes with more solid foundations. While it probably makes more of the themes implied in the records title, it doesn’t feel entirely at home here. Fenrir Eyes is perhaps the heaviest piece here, but suffers from being disjointed, as if there is some vital element missing that would complete it. The remix by Drvg Cvltvr flattens it and livens it up, however, spicing the proceedings generously with something approaching Tronitum Domini’s eerie coolness.
Northern Sages works best when the conceits and the ideas are allowed to collide and combine into new forms, or when its use of older forms are allowed to express themselves in new ways. Such an elaborate take on familiar genres is to be applauded even – perhaps especially – when the ideas seem a little too big, too grandiose, for their boots. And while its ostentatious methods are certainly likely to open a few eyes and ears, it’s the meat below them that ultimately keeps things fresh and interesting.