We like to think it’s the cold precision of computers that makes electronic music so attractive. But those moments when humanity seeps through the programmed textures always makes listening more compelling. Think of New Order’s mesh of whiney singing, guitars and electronics, or those moments in crushing techno set when the ghost of vocal dances over the kick drum pummels. And what could be more human than failure? We rely on our machines for those times when our unreliable humanity can’t be trusted, yet there’s always a sneaking sense of relief when our hardware and software is proved fallible too. Technological perfection isn’t necessarily desirable.
It’s this infallibility that Phil Julian explores in Relay. Its six cuts describe sequences and patterns that drift off course, subtly subverting expectations of how computer music should behave. “A lot of the things that are in those pieces are to do with machines that don’t have any relation to one another, they don’t sync up very well, or they can be nudged in an interesting way to misalign, or to fail, or to fall apart,” he told me on the We Need No Swords podcast a few weeks back. That refusal to stick everything to a grid makes for subtle, engaging listening. Julian is too canny to signpost this unquantized drift explicitly – on first listen, one might easily assume that title track’s overlapping bursts of chunky splutter, alarm bell clamour and wheezy panic are all synced meticulously into some software timeline, such is the locked-on asymmetry of its corroded latticework.
That piece recalls the polyhedral density of Bind, Julian’s collab with John Macedo from last year, and its burly driller-killer tones make for a bruising opener. True, Relay’s slippages are all but undetectable unless you know what you’re looking for. But that’s fine, as the effect is more of a subliminal vibe, removing the rather clinical element present in much computer music from Julian’s compositions and instead giving them an interestingly cyborg air, the sense of squishy humanoid brain matter driving the chips and wires. And, human or not, occasionally the effect is downright evil. The swirling vortices of Field smash a spiralling Dyson-suck roar up against a burnt-out siren whine, resulting in a terrifyingly weightless sprawl, like Alice in a Disobey t-shirt falling up the rabbit hole forever, never to arrive in Wonderland.
Several of Relay’s longer tracks use multi-channel performances from Goldsmiths University’s Great Hall as source material, which Julian then edited and reassembled into their present form. It’s a method of composition that suits the material perfectly, Julian condensing and focusing the original explorations to create finely-grained, mixed-down soundscapes. Yet these pieces never quite lose that initial improvisatory air. Even at their most tumultuous – as in the chirruping waves of squall on Tropic – there’s a dynamism that prevents things getting too clogged and claustrophobic. Or maybe it’s because Julian brings a sense of structural nous to even his most open-ended experiments, due perhaps to his years spent wrestling with noisemaking gear in front of an audience. That means there’s less of a disjunction between the shorter, more improvised tracks on Relay – such as the hysterical gaggle of Coherence II or the mangled ventilator system recordings that make up Aperture – and those longer tracks. There’s diversity of construction, sure, and a pleasing variety of sonic results. But those parts come together to make Relay a satisfyingly integrated whole.