While I consider 1995's 94 Diskont their hallmark album, the then-trio of Oval, comprising of Markus Popp, Frank Metzger and Sebastian Oschatz, found a way of working with electronic sounds on Systemisch that subtly changed the landscape of the previously unnamed Glitch genre. Released in 1994 on the Thrill Jockey label, their second officially available work departs decisively with the dadaistic Pop formula of 1993's Wohnton. The experimental German lyrics are gone for good, replaced by a soundscape that was back then Oval's trademark: the digital alteration of potentially – or previously – cozy synth washes with static noise, chopped micro samples, cut fizzles, you name it. It was Oval that elevated the jittered soundscape to an artform in which the rules were continously tested and detested in a, well, systemic way. Now if you do not know Systemisch yet, you might think that there will be a totally enchanting or alienating album waiting for you. Neither of both assertions is true, as a synthesis of both is presented. There are only two valid rules in the boundaries of Systemisch, namely at first the creation of hypnotic jitter sequences and then in a second step their conflation to a permanent loop. The analogue synths and organs are utterly mellow and euphonious, even the Glitch particles are not that spiky and rustic, but merge perfectly on each of the eleven compositions. What makes this album so great, even in hindsight, is its accessibility: Oval show that the Ambient-driven Glitch genre does not need to sound overly experimental or terrifyingly rough and brutal. The unfolding sounds are very much loop-based. Once a loop is presented, it only shifts ever so slightly, and no surprising noise-laden intermission is ever interwoven. 94 Diskont is much more dynamic and shifting in this regard, but Systemisch still has its qualities, for its steadiness and majesty allow a trance-like state. I dare a closer look at all of its tracks below.


The 7+ minutes long aura of Textuell lures the listener with its warmth and encapsulated balm, the silkened hi-hats, the bubbling bassline and mellow bleeps. The shuffling percussion serves as a clear rhythm-providing layer, quite a contrast to the mercurial effervescence of Oval's later works, but here the trio stays in safe territories, delivering a gorgeously analogue track that is not exactly melodious, which means that one cannot sing along to it, but all the more euphonious, every element meshes with the juxtaposed one, chaos does not resign, as all looped sequences unfold harmoniously. Only in the last two minutes are the jitters and crunchy particles revved up, but this potentially wonky inclusion is itself looped time and again, thus becoming another orderly element. Textuell is a superb track for Glitch beginners – no offense intended – who would love to find a larger amount of smooth elements in an entrancing gallimaufry. The following Aero Deck is thinner and loftier, with more grinding and churning hi-hats in place and a synth backdrop that is a tad more glacial and bleepy, but definitely snugly enough to righteously call this a highly accessible work. The wobbling bassline massages the belly and proves to be an important counterpart to the brightly glowing atmosphere.


While The Politics Of Digital Audio is probably the important track which foreshadows both the IDM-permeating state of the mid-90's electronic way of life and Oval's shift into more lacunar, hectically bubbling Glitch structures due to its whirring pipes, crunchy percussive dryness, iridescent twinkles and various mellifluous sine waves, it is Schoener Wissen (very roughly translatable as nicer to know) which remains in the world of digital artifacts, but tends to remain on the mellower side, with rhythmical staccato loops of analogue coziness, Geiger counter-resembling splutters and an additional brighter melody that wafts gently in-between the intrinsic layers. Since Schoener Wissen is adamantly loop-based, the loops have to be catchy in order to work properly, the presented structure is almost too easygoing and minimal, but all the warmer. Catchy DAAD opens with the screams of a cybersaurus before the most beautiful crystal bell rings in the distance, bathing in jitter-heavy click-fueled bubbling bass loops. The mystique and purity of this soft bell is astonishing and carries the whole track, despite its static presence, as it remains the sole constant in this cozy hodgepodge without the slightest change, making Catchy DAAD one of my favorite Oval pieces of the 90's. The following Mediation moves forward to almost ethereal realms and could well be the most wraithlike piece of the trio: celestial seraphic melodies are bouncing around the staccato-perturbed heartbeat of the song. The most surprising segue takes place around the two minute mark when the melody is played in a streamlined legato way for a very short moment, thus letting the listener take a glimpse onto its real state which is then rhythmically chopped.


Tonregie (XYZ) is a raspier affair at first thanks to its snarling crackles, but these are soon ennobled by a wonderfully grafted downwards spiraling organ mélange complete with glacial pimples and bumps. The soundscape of their third album 94 Diskont is foreshadowed by this soundscape, and I am of the opinion that the music of Oval always sounds most intriguing when deeper layers are allowed to unfold, especially so when they mesh – or change into – bass creeks and a similarly spiraling haze. Tonregie is thus another beautiful track with the perfect balance of digital noise and an analogue flow. Whereas Oval Office continues the 94 Diskont-like preview session and surprises with a gentle approach when wondrously silky sine waves and pulses conflate with each other, only loosely held together by a mildly clicking aqueous placenta, the aptly titled Compact Disc evokes a jittery ride via its title alone, and indeed is the trio mediating between overdriven artifacts and hectical clicks on the one side and hidden glints of melodies on the other. Like a sprinkler do the clicks gyrate around a dark bassline, often accompanied by bubbling gusts of static noise. The penultimate Post-Post immediately showcases its multitextured melody cascade: a gorgeously deep, arcane and purifying synth monotony meets with another sprinkler-resembling click device, creating the most enchanting aura of the whole album in tandem with these clangs and fizzles. This is mellow Glitch and another perfect entry into the genre, as is the whole album. The curiously sarcastic outro Gabba Nation depicts a Cologne Schaffel-resembling shoegaze rhythm (in 1994 already!), admixes the most luminous organ polyphony and only comrpises of hints of disturbing noises. This is the most easygoing tune, Oval create an utterly enchanting, sizzling-hot shelter-giving capsule of snugness. The synths and organs are on the foreground and much more carved out than ever before, thus ending the album with the poppiest track. A killer outro!


Systemisch is revolutionary yet tame for the modern listener. We all have heard more aggressive Glitchscapes, complexly concocted sounds, crosspolluting layers et cetera, but still, this album marks the cornerstone of future adventures in clicking jitter realms. The idea of penetrating a sound carpet to the point of its destruction is presented here for the first time, if only carefully so, as the analogue beauty of the synths is omnipresent and the clicks and splutters aren't cacophonous at all, but usually blend well. There are no sudden sound bursts that would cause a shift in reception. Due to the fact that the trio crosses unmarked lands, the complexity is not yet at its height. Systemisch is glaringly loop-based, the band makes this decision their systemic rule, but if you can accept this fact, everything else is on board. After a mellow start, the album unfolds slightly more digital structures, a tendency that is also reflected in the track titles. However, the end phase is again strictly cozy and balmy, with the bile-driven Gabba Nation serving as the climax of warmth despite its sarcastic title. I keep coming back often to this album, and to my mind, it is a splendid addendum – or precursor for that matter – of 94 Diskont which boosts everything that is on Systemisch already: the synth thickets, the variety, the occasional dissonance, the jitter outbursts, the effervescent ebullience, the dreamy state. Maybe one rule of thumb makes it clearer: while Systemisch is painted in aural pastel colors, 94 Diskont shows itself in well-saturated technicolor. 




Ambient Review 168: Oval – Systemisch (1994). Originally published on Jan. 9, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.