I have come to realise, as I get older, that if I had my time again I would have become an architect. The design and topography of big cities especially fascinates me; as I’ve argued (unsuccessfully) with my sister many times, an uncluttered Cornish landscape may well be beautiful, but take a look at the skyline of a city like New York and it’s no less breathtaking.
And so, with that admission positioned carefully upfront, I think I was always going to ‘get’ the latest album from Jon Russell, better known as Jonteknik, whose material I’ve reviewed here and for Electronic Sound over the past few years. Jon also kindly supported my 2014 MuteResponse project with the contribution of a very fine track, ‘Vincent’, which was an homage to Erasure’s Vince Clarke, even going so far as to use the same synth sound as Clarke used on ‘Phantom Bride’. It’s indicative of a considered, involved approach that Russell brings to all of his musical projects.
Skylines consists of tracks designed to evoke the architecture of various European cities, all of which are clearly unique, and all of which have made consciously unique design statements and additions to their individual skylines. Those statements range from the classical architecture to be found in Rome that set in motion an entire discipline based on the distinctive structural gestures of Vitruvius, the upward wrought iron thrust of engineer Gustav Eiffel’s initially temporary tower for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, or Eliel Saarinen’s National Romantic designs for Helsinki’s Central railway station.
Crafting music that evokes the unique character of a concept (in this case cities), without resorting to flippant stylistic stereotypes or whimsical parody, is an acquired skill, but one that Russell pulls off without breaking a sweat. A track like ‘Copenhagen’ has a bounce and vibrancy that entirely mirrors the energy to be found in Denmark’s über-hip capital; the atmospheres Russell creates for ‘Oslo’, on the other hand, have an unmistakeable coolness, but a little bit more grit, just as Oslo seems to be a somewhat more grounded and realistic compared to its much trendier Nordic rivals.
‘London’ has a cautionary creep to its development, with the comical / colloquial / embarrassing names of modern buildings like The Shard and The Gherkin delivered somewhat jarringly next to more acceptable, much less self-aggrandising forms of statement in the city – Nelson’s Column, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge. Russell manages to turn his ‘London’ into the perfect musical accompaniment to Rowan Moore’s recent book Slow Burn London, itself an objective appraisal of the UK capital’s many architectural successes and its much more pronounced failings.
This is electronic music that is, by necessity, highly evocative and broad in its vision. You can imagine the shiny, glimmering pieces here being used in capital city-surveying National Geographic documentary films involving lots of wide shots of city skylines or close-ups of iconic structures, while ‘From Madrid To Barcelona’ has a travelogue quality underpinned by an unmistakably train-like rhythm. Where electronic music alone falls slightly short of perfectly embodying the city he is trying to evoke the impression of, Russell deploys sprinkles of vocodered voices or found sounds – poetic sections about le mystère de Paris, a recorded announcement from Oslo’s Metro, lists of architectural movements to be found in that city, a taped voice detailing Berlin’s prime tourist traps, and so on. Elsewhere, judicious use of minimalism is used to evoke the feeling of space, fuller sections reflect the clustered density of buildings, complexity – of rhythm, of melodic interplay – is used to create the impression of moving at speed around a city like current through a circuit board or ideas around a neural network.
Even if you’re not an architectural nerd like me, and even if you’ve never travelled to most of the cities for which Russell has created a track, this is clever electronic music that deserves to be heard – and a brilliant retort to the hackneyed view that you can’t dance to architecture.
(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence