There’s a bad habit among writers of press releases to situate albums in whatever latest genres sound cool. The music of Bristol’s emptyset is bass-heavy and beat-driven, but even taking into account the Berlin-via-Bristol inroads of minimal dub/techno into dubstep, I had to thoroughly dismiss the intimations of dubstep from this album before I could truly appreciate it.
The name chosen by James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas for their duo should be a dead giveaway, of course – not just because of the minimalist implications: Mika Vainio’s solo project is ø (the symbol for the empty set), after all.
It’s interesting listening to emptyset after Fieldhead, who combines the static and staticness of contemporary drone with (among other things) a version of dubstep’s beats. The beats of emptyset are always regimented into techno’s 4/4 divisions: variations are made only by placing hits on downbeats or half-beats. There is no syncopation. While dubstep, hip-hop, drum’n’bass et al are interested more in the gaps between, techno (and to some extent house, electro, trance) tends to obsess upon the constant thump of the four beats of the bar.
By rights, that should make me hate this music. But I don’t: I love it. It shares with its predecessors in Basic Channel etc a strong interest in abstract sound and sound design; the first track is an almost ambient piece consisting mainly of a thrumming sine-tone bass. As static gradually enters, it actually sets the tone for what’s to come. Add a beat, combine and mix. Essentially, modulated sine waves, white noise and synthesised beats are all the elements emptyset use. Their strength comes from the heavy warmth of the bass and the way the throbs of basslines and static dance around each other while the beats plonk away.
The album is structured so that both within and in between tracks beats can be interrupted by gasps of static, or beats briefly distorted through ring modulators. There’s just enough variation to keep things moving: the music is very hard to ignore despite its repetitive minimalism. And it’s impossible not to nod your head along. The central two tracks are the essential sequence: in “Gate 3” a hiss-laden klaxon gives way to a beat that’s the distilled essence of head-nod: a held bass-note and a higher tone on second off-beat almost point at the syncopation, but the bass keeps relentlessly hitting that down-beat. The effect continues in the stellar “Completely Gone”, where the previous track’s elements gain some extra complication, but the general idea is the same: slowly insert static, let it grow a little and then drop back to the basics.
These etudes in static, bass & drum machines offer a fresh take on a decades-old sonic combination. Unexpected echoes of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works mingle with Pan Sonic’s simple brutality, and emptyset provide a thrilling ride.