Several years ago, once the initial and lengthy buzz surrounding
dancefloor techno had passed, there was a brief hype about "intelligent" or
"armchair" techno, the idea being that there was electronic music you
could and would appreciate better at home than in the clubs. The notion was
scoffed at at the time, and it's true that Intelligent Techno led to all
kinds of pretentious twaddle (step forward Autechre and Aphex Twin -- and
that's only the A's), but it did usher in a new era, of electronic music as
"serious" music, one worthy of debate beyond its mere BPMs.
Braingarden are perfectly suited to such a discussion, from band name
to deliberately filmic album title. This is a highly cerebral act whose
compositions owe as much to the visual possibilities of the cinematic
big screen -- or the fuzzy warmth of the living-room small screen -- as
they do the relentless demands of the dancefloor. Their tracks adhere
roughly to the rules of techno; start with an (often discreet) theme
from a piano, bass or synth and build it up gradually as the minutes go
by, hypnotizing and constantly reinventing along the away. What marks
Braingarden cuts such as "Into The Cloud Forest" and "To Heaven" as
special is that the themes are much more airy and endearing than one
might expect from modern electronic music; though they pay respect to the
pace of the dancefloor, Braingarden are far from slaves to it.
Rarely was a techno album better suited for home-listening.
Braingarden's Atom Smith and Brad Cooper originate from the East Coast --
I vaguely recall their semi-industrial act the Faktory doing the New York
rounds in the early '90s -- but since relocating to L.A. a few years ago,
the duo has been busy producing compositions for small-time TV, radio and
film projects. If Braingarden's debut album is anything to go by, they've been
investing the proceeds back into top-notch equipment, because the most
striking aspect of Unfamiliar Highways is the quality of the sound.
Independent electronic records usually lack both the bluster and finesse of
their major-label counterparts, but Braingarden's output sounds no less
professional than Madonna. Full credit to them.
If Braingarden have a fault, it's that their music is often just a little
too airy. Many of their themes are so subtle as to be forgotten once
the track is over; only a couple of cuts ("Stay" and "Comfortable Room")
use vocal samples to help distinguish them from others. And though
it's refreshing to hear an album without bone-crushing rhythms in these
days of relentless big beat and drum & bass, few of Braingarden's
tracks invite more than token foot-shuffling. Occupying the vast and
not desperately commercial expanse between ambient and techno,
Braingarden may easily get lost in the shuffle.
But if you're looking for a new album that will sit well on your
armchair or coffee table, impressing your underground-electronica friends
without upsetting your mum, this is it. Atmospheric, ambitious and even