Model 3, Step 2
Microstoria's third and final album for the time being, called Model 3, Step 2 and released in 2000 on the Thrill Jockey label, finds Markus Popp and Jan St. Werner in conceptually surprising realms. While it is usually the case that so-called abstract or experimental musicians decide to move into harsher, frostier and more far-out territories with each subsequent release, Model 3, Step 2 stands firmly in-between the duo's preceding albums. It contains both the tremendously lush and heart-warming synth thickets of their 1995 debut Init Ding as well as the stripped-down Glitch particle-laden post-modernism of 1996's Snd. Instead of building on the frostier, loneliness-evoking intimacy of Snd, Popp and St. Werner decide to fuse the best elements of each albums together, creating a synergetic hybrid that is quite demanding for the inexperienced Glitch listener, but all the more intriguing for those Ambient fans who want their favorite genre to be convoluted and complex on the one hand, and to offer potentially melodious hooks with lots of textural treats on the other hand. While bands like Autechre, Popp's own group Oval and St. Werner's main project Mouse On Mars eventually departed from their balmy analogue soundscapes in order to inject eclectic beat patterns and noise structures, Model 3, Step 2 mediates between the laid back and complex styles with ease. It's still no easily digestible Glitch architecture, but then again, it's no brazen, intimidating critter either. Its nine tracks target a somewhat skilled listener, but once these demands are met, the album provides a joyful, bleep-heavy, synth-sugared final ride through astonishingly snugly aural buildings.
Warm sine waves of the fuzzy kind launch the Glitch-laden soundscape of Mee-Too-Formula, the first potential addendum to their equally glitchy second album Snd. As these aural breezes waft in the background, punchy plinks of heavily filtered guitars and interwoven crystalline pulses merge and depart incessantly, and it is due to the permanent stream of these warmer waves that there are no fissures or cracks involved until the end when the backing synths fade out and make room for a vividly whirling interplay of the thin guitar and pulse layers. It's one of those archetypical Glitch tunes that meshes balmy elements with rather acidic molecules, but its cozier elements outweigh the cacophonous parts and make it one of the more accessible pieces of the duo; the same goes for Glocky Bit with its vibraphone-esque accents, pink noise injections and analogue cyberspace jitters that aren't nerve-racking rather than coruscating and uplifting. It's a proper Ambient track whose gentle setting creates a dreamy panorama that harks back to the band's first album Init Ding of 1995 and intermixes a few slightly harsher elements akin to Oval's 94 Diskont of the same year, making it another wonderful arrangement to which I'm coming back often. While Kontra places an abyssal bass drone in-between heavily blurred-out ecclesial bell loops and rounds off the depth of this silky arrangement with zipper-like eruptions, whirring bumblebee swarms and creaking machine knobs, the following, longest piece with over five minutes of runtime, Fakeshift, injects the first vaccines of frostiness comprising of warped Italo pianos and sawtooth stabs, but places warmer ornaments such as the wonderfully trembling multitextural organs and acoustic guitar twangs in close proximity to the colder devices. Even though there are piercing blasts and baneful acid splutters involved in the track's later phase, the whole aura is surprisingly mollifying in the given context. All of the four tracks are very strong and much more dense than the material of Snd, and even close to the luxurious synth layers of the debut Init Ding.
Next is Flexen. It glimmers and oscillates between ukulele-like licks and sizzling-hot faux-shawm organs all the time and enhances their weird interplay with vinyl pops. It is one of the surprisingly few compositions that also rely heavily on space and emptiness, as there are pauses and alcoves all over the track, some of them even lasting for several seconds. Additional galactic laser sound effects, cyber chirps and dubby bass bursts function as finishing touches of the track. It's astonishing how the blithe of the organic instruments can fend off the coldness of the empty rooms, a trick that is repeated in Mem.Brand, but here the concept of space is lessened with the help of thin flows of haze over which spiraling bit-crushed noises, Geiger counter-like clicks and gelid sparks float. The different volume levels between the sudden noises is sometimes irritiating, but they're still played on a tolerable level. It is clear that Popp and St. Werner are moving into more experimental territories, though. The bustling micronoises of Artic basically form a reprise of Mem.Brand, with equally terrorizing noises being exchanged with short intersections of saccharine melodies. The harsh experimental flavor, however, remains. The slow fade-in of Soso Sound presents quick loops of mesmerizingly dreamy melodies, artificial buzzes and various wonky chimes that merge with warm rustic synth pads, hectic helicopter rotor attacks and liquid clicks. Despite the quick succession of gazillions of blebs, the positively soothing intimacy is never destroyed, let alone hurt. The final fitting piece of the album is called Paro Fadeout, and while it's definitely the coldest composition with spectral wind gusts, frosty robotic tone sequences and AM radio noise, the fragile and ever-changing quality of the radio tones adds a certain veil of entrancing balminess and thus camouflages one of the most frantic arrangements, ending the album on a harmonious note.
Having encountered many Glitch or IDM albums over the years, I can boldly claim that Microstoria's Model 3, Step 2 is a resplendently warming Ambient album. Instead of revving up the bile and unnerving elements, the album sits firmly in-between the opulent lushness of the synth-heavy Init Ding and the stripped-down, empty office space-evoking nothingness of Snd, despite being the third album of the duo. So here we have the rare case of a band whose experimental albums don't boost the iciness or alienating particles with each successive entry, but deliver a course correction by marrying the warmer parts of the debut with the click- and jitter-heavy aura of the second work. This is still no Pop Ambient album, but it's a predominantly friendly, inviting and gleeful realization of Glitch structures, with the ubiquity of the many heart-warming synths lessening the harsher and volume-boosted acid stabs or venomous particles that are scattered throughout the aural rooms. Markus Popp's and Jan St. Werner's final album is an intriguing example of a melodious Glitch album. Not one single melody is hummable or remains stuck in the head, but the textures and characteristic traits of the patterns are, and so the presumed hodgepodge delivers lots of "whoa! moments" in which happiness and impressed interjections ensue. If you are a fan of syrupy Ambient albums, Init Ding is still the masterpiece of Microstoria in this regard. However, if you despise the glacial loneliness of Snd, but find the streamlined approach of Init Ding all too boring as it is the least complex and mostly synth chord-fueled release, take Model 3, Step 2 into account for the reasons of mediation and balancing. Both musicians are still involved in their pet projects Oval and Mouse On Mars respectively, but apart from a Best Of compilation called Invisible Architecture #3 that was released in 2002, no further Microstoria album exists. I wouldn't be surprised if the duo will resume their cooperation some time in the future. Until then, I recommend all three of their albums wholeheartedly, even though they vary in accessibility and abstractionism and hence demand quite a lot from the listener… only to lure and entrance him or her afterwards.
Ambient Review 134: Microstoria – Model 3, Step 2 (2000). Originally published on Oct. 17, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.