Electric Counterpoint: Kraftwerk; Steve Reich

Powerplant (Signum Classics SIGCD143)

3 November 2008 3 stars

Powerplant: Electric CounterpointPowerplant's Electric Counterpoint is all about versatility. Unlike most débuts, it doesn't step forward by offering up a particular, recognizable 'sound', but concentrates on juggling three different genres within less than an hour of music. A brave choice, and one perhaps best suited to a duo of such virtuosity as live sound engineer Matthew Fairclough and percussionist Joby Burgess.

The nine tracks subdivide neatly into three groups: the first three tracks are the band's take on one of the milestones of American minimalism, Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint. The original instrumentation (guitar) is substituted entirely with electronic sounds. This, combined with the notoriously repetitive music, produced something uncannily similar to videogame music. The effect swings delightfully between hypnosis and tear-your-hair-out irritation, which to me, is precisely the core of the devious charm of minimalism.

The following three are covers of Kraftwerk tracks. The endeavour here is not only to bring these outmoded dance tunes into the twenty-first century, but to turn them into sophisticated music. Enter the Elysian Quartet. The result is often dubious, especially in Tour de France, where the Quartet does nothing more than play the tune. With Radioactivity, however, comes a real perk. The opening minute and a half of this track is really suggestive, with the mournful string quartet chords emerging from the sound of a detuned radio, punctuated by a beat in a high, metallic timbre. Fairclough's imagination is at its best here. However, one really wishes that the plodding 4/4 synthesized bass never came in to shatter this delicate balance.  Pocket Calculator closes the trio of Kraftwerk covers. It is here perhaps that the presence of the String Quartet is most puzzling. Although the use of the string sound as resonance for the electronic sound works by itself, the amount of thought gone into the make-over of this most adored track by Kraftwerk is perhaps excessive. The fun of Kraftwerk's original Pocket Calculator, afterall, lies in the fact that it sounds as though it was made with a pocket calculator.

The closing three tracks have got an altogether different feel to the rest of the album. They are original pieces, rather than covers, and they explore the ritualistic aspect of rhythm while showing off Burgess and Fairclough's own creative thinking. Carbon Copy begins like an incantation, with the recurring, low wail of the berimbau—an African instrument that sounds like a cousin of the didgeridoo. The entreaty of the berimbau gradually articulates itself into an irresistible ritualistic dance of fretted strings and drums, building up an impalpable foil of electronic resonance. The sound world of the following track, Temazcal, and its coupling with Kathy Hinde's video, make it strongly reminiscent of some of Björk's music to Matt Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 –which is no bad thing, to say the least. Temazcal is a beguiling mix of organic noises and rustling electronics, firm beats and far away ukuleles. Unlike the other tracks on the CDs, the sonorities are in perpetual motion, with Fairclough constantly bringing sonic details in and out of focus at dazzling speed, for the pleasure of the listener. Last is Audiotectonics III, which comes as a slight anticlimax after the previous track, and whose juxtaposition of skillful drumming with synthesizer sounds from the eighties is somehow jarring and doesn't seem to bring about the musical climax it promises.

Electric Counterpoint is the product of a couple of skilled and eclectic musicians. Yet the eclecticism results in a certain discontinuity of quality, which is most obvious in the Kraftwerk covers that make up the central section of the album. The closing three tracks, however, display Burgess and Fairclough at their most imaginative and original, and make one look forward to a self-penned album by these two remarkable artists

By Delia Casadei