1990's / 2012
Music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy. These four fields of knowledge form the quadrivium, one of the highest divisions of universities in the Middle Ages. What this background information tells one about the eponymous Quadrivium by the Italian duo Freewill aka Maximiliano "Mog" Faccio and Dario "Dax" Bedin remains in the dark, as do many things about medieval times. The background story of this CD – the first dedicated album of the Rome-based Electronique.it magazine and record label – is all the more meaningful and melancholic: this album was "recorded during the 90's and buried for a while, waiting to be discovered," as the press sheet tells. And this particular sentence, as platitudinous it may seem at first sight, causes a great bit of mystery and goosebumps. Lots of superb Ambient and IDM albums were produced during the early 90’s, the shimmering lucency of analogue oscillators and emerald-tinged synths are attractions many people miss nowadays. Heck, due to the epidemically spread video game culture, today’s kids constantly encounter many music-related artifacts of that era once they take a peek beyond the multi-million dollar blockbuster titles, making a new generation aware of these sounds that reside in-between quirky, entrancing and energetic climes. When it comes to the nostalgia level, not much can beat Freewill’s Quadrivium! The duo concocts Ambient sweeps and Detroit patterns, admixes Deep House particles with epicurean breakbeat-accentuated synth stabs and implicitly worships the works of Dave Angel, Ken Ishii, Model 500, Sun Electric or even Global Communication, the latter of whom presented many beat-driven Ambient songs in their eternal masterpiece 76:14 (1994). If these names do not ring a bell, all is not lost: take Stellar OM Source, Teengirl Fantasy or Lone’s latest Rave- and cyberspace-inspired firecrackers of the last three years, strip off their hyper-hectic eclecticism and hatch their color palette, and you pretty much find yourself deeply entrenched in the exciting Ambient-oid electronic world of the abysmally sublime 90’s sounds of which Freewill is a part of. Released in December 2012 in a limited edition of 200 hand-numbered copies, its ten tracks are further dissected below with the kind admission of Electronique.it curator Ivo D'Antoni who sent me a digital copy for review purposes. But to be perfectly honest: these tracks rather turn the modus operandi around. They dissect your humble reviewer, for they whirr autonomically and above my semi-comprehensive sense of perception.
The initial point of submergence: Acquarium. Launching with the seraphic balm of silkened aqueous currents, bass pads and a scintillating polar star spark, a slowed down Jungle-like exotic djembe groove is placed next to gently grinding spirals of metal. The mood is maintained throughout the duration of two and a half minutes. And believe me, it won't be the only time the Jungle genre is visited. Since Acquarium is the first track of the album, its purpose is not necessarily that of an unrewarding opener; much more important is the sense and feel, the tonality, the textures of both the virtual instrumental pool and the surface of their existence, for Quadrivium is a coherent album and draws from the same sources incessantly, with manifold tweaks and alterations, naturally. The following Isolation points to the proof. Torn between a mournful mystique and languorous serpentines, its fused crystal pads, grafted shakers and belly-massaging breakbeat paint an enchanted cavern, a feeling that is only interpolated by the careful addition of hall effects to the laser-insinuating snare drum. The arrangement of the layers is carefully crafted and well-balanced, for the legato strings are not as encapsulating, the snares and drums not overly punchy. Liquid Brain even builds on the cavity of Isolation, as the duo injects reverberations to the dripstone cave-resembling synth driblets, revs up the amount of laser drums and adds smoke-covered brazen accompaniments to the dichotomy of haze and energy.
It is Quasar that changes the aura of the album despite keeping the turquoise-green illumination intact. The breakbeat is enormously sublime despite its frugal shape, the five-pulse synth pads in the background are of Deep House quality, i.e. very resplendent and sumptuous, the poured monotonous synth river serves as an additional cushion, and finally there is the gorgeous physiognomy of the coruscating synth stabs which pierce through the snugly glob and tower above the deepness due to their blazing liquidity. All layers work in tandem as usual, but here they shake off the heaviness and exchange it with an uplifting vibe. This atmosphere is neglected in the next tune: Crispy Bacon is an easygoing downbeat piece comprising of a successful juxtaposition, namely deep Funk guitar layers with three-note synth carpets and a memorable ripple motif which occurs time and again and provides an ecstatic enchantment next to the Sunday afternoon atmosphere. Crispy Bacon is slightly less deep than its predecessor, but the different textures mesh like clockwork, making this a mildly effervescent but definitely joyous example. The next tune, In The Middle Of The Night, lightens up yet again despite its title, but Freewill seem to have created a monster with this tune. Depending on the open-mindedness and background of the listener, the duo might have taken things too far, for its saccharine setting and the nocturnal-bedazzling duality of the synth pads suggest a usage in a posh Lounge bar where it would be depraved as background music. The bongo layers, the quicker pace and the surprising amount of hummable melodies are undoubtedly nice, but this is one of their 90’s artifacts that has not aged well, not after the invasion of cosmopolitan two-drinks-minimum bars during the millennium in the epicenters of many countries. Your mileage may vary, especially so if you detach the music from its socio-economic surroundings.
To my mind, In The Middle Of The Night is the only minor flaw of Quadrivium, which gets more convoluted and experimental in its final stage, either striping off the melodious elements or conversely reinforcing them in the neon spotlight. Labyrinth sees Faccio and Bedin drop a whitewashed rotor snare over a pumping Dub outskirt, a sleazy bass guitar sequence and high-plasticity insect-like slivers, clicks and flecks. This is one of two tunes that get rid of the bolstered synth pads which resurface less often and completely blend with Labyrinth’s soundscape. Strange Lifeform catapults the listener away into clear-cut Jungle territories with its music box-resembling square lead spirals, gelid cymbals and shakers, wonky 8-bit bass underpinnings and a exhilarative synth stream. This tune is a mess… at first. After about 90 seconds, it suddenly opens up and reveals a euphoric euphony in the veins of the aforementioned Sun Electric, especially so their mid-90’s Jungle-influenced compositions off their sophomore album Present of 1996. Galactic flare clouds swirl and flicker in the oozing syrup, all the while the drum patterns continue to cause steam and thermal heat. Muffled male vocals round off this playful piece. It is no Ambient track and a bit too schmaltzy in hindsight, but it somehow manages to capture my heart. But wait, things get harsher and pacier: Zero is a pernicious brute with shaded colors, an aggressively demolished and crushed Jungle outfit and doleful synth backings. It feels pressing, threatening, tense and urgently and is hence another the second track that breaks with the color arc and diminishes the impetus of the synths. The final Fractal Shape functions as the effective apotheosis in that it returns to the Ambient side of things while being a novelty at the same time, since it is a beatless piece. Only a few evocative frosty Jungle snares are dropped, but these do not destroy the analogue antrum that is painted via the stardust pads, the gurgling fluidness of the vivaciously pulsating droplets and the arpeggiated organ accents. A gentle amount of reverb finishes the aural diorama. The 90’s are over…
… or aren’t they? Quadrivium is a trip down memory lane, Ambient at its core, and then squeezed, twisted, shaken and finally ennobled by somewhat archaic forms of a genre-related entertainment that has still survived to this day, but in a perfected and processed form. The album has aged well, its synths are polished, the percussion layers are purposefully rough, otherwise shiningly slippery. The depth of it is perceptible, but does not swallow the listener like works of The Timewriter, for the duo balances things out, never allowing a certain aspect to outshine the other by volume level or voluminosity alone. And yet are there fantastic moments of mercurial esprit which hit the listener big time. In my case, it is the radiant incandescence of the synth stabs in the aptly-titled Quasar, the mesmerizing electro ripples of the hammock anthem Crispy Bacon, the catchy Junglescape of the saccharine Strange Lifeform and the contemplative kick-off phase of the album with part jovially, part enigmatically gyrating synth vesicles in the first three tracks. And let me not forget the effective inclusion of funk and bass guitars which somehow mesh with the retrograde motion towards the 90’s. The synth-savvy duo of Freewill only makes one misstep with the Lounge-soaked In The Middle Of The Night, and the morphogenesis of this particular track only turns out to be an error due to the market being flooded with similar releases time and again, even in the same moment as you are reading these lines. On the plus side, I can state that Maximiliano "Mog" Faccio and Dario "Dax" Bedin are divinatory gifted. They saw this soulless genre coming. Be it as it may, the color and temperature of the synths across the album in adjacency to the often eclectic but nonetheless accessible beat structures are the biggest advantages and selling points of Quadrivium, regardless of whether you are a long-standing father or loving mother who looks back to the late 80’s and early 90’s with a fair share of wistfulness and nostalgia, or if you are a twenty-something university student whose genuine interest in the various niches of after-rave culture and zone-out parties led to a quondam spadework which makes Freewill’s album less alienating to you. I have a certain, by no means comprehensive knowledge about 90's IDM, and I am completely jinxed by Freewill's vintage work, hence my remark in the opening section of this review that it is the songs that dissect me, not vice versa. The Italian team pushes the right buttons and triggers my synapses with this refreshing retro dose. Quadrivium is no transfiguration. It is no pastiche. It is not even a homage to the 90’s. It is the 90’s.
Further listening and reading:
- You can listen to excerpts of all ten tracks off Quadrivium via this SoundCloud link.
- Follow the Electronique.it label on Twitter: @electronique_it.
Ambient Review 169: Freewill – Quadrivium (1990's/2012). Originally published on Jan. 9, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.