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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Szmt - Parvenu [Gruenrekorder - 2017]

The organicist metaphor of society as like that of bees has a long history in Western thought, predating the better known bodily metaphor - which is the foundation of modern corporational doctrine - by several centuries. Originating in Antiquity, the notion that human society should imitate nature as best it can slowly came into question during the later European middle ages, under pressure from developing mercantile economy and advances in legal and political organisation. In the modern era the hive metaphor was increasing viewed as anti-democratic, suppressive of the individual and hive-like societies almost inevitably malevolent; think of the Borg in Star Trek or caricatures of Communism (particularly Chinese) during the Cold War. Nevertheless the beehive society metaphor never entirely vanished and in the Modern period was most often invoked as an embellishment to holistic economic thought. George Cruikshank's remarkable British Beehive image is paradigmatic in this respect, not least in its overall schematic similarity to medieval overviews of the hierarchical world such as those of Honorius of Autun. Tobias Schmitt's intriguing Parvenu appears to be an attempt to capture something of these ideas and their continuing relevance for modernity. Schmitt has form for this kind of leftfield enterprise with his previous Gruenrekorder release being the suitably labyrinthine Fauna and Flora of the Vatican City , put out in 2008 under his Suspicion Breeds Confidence moniker.

The record - as the gatefold packaging states - is entirely composed of material recorded from beehives at the Senckenberg Institut, Frankfurt which Schmitt has heavily treated and recomposed into four dense and fairly abstract pieces. Each has a long descriptive title which could be a statement lifted from either a work of political theory or a manual on bee husbandry. The ambiguity here seems to be part of the game.

First piece Sometimes she had melancholic memories of her larval stage brings us in nose to nose with the hive. Close recordings of crackling, clicking sounds lead us into the anti-chamber of the swarm. And when it comes - all too briefly here - the expected buzzing is a deep, bass heavy throb. But this is a record that wears its tendency to abstraction proudly and after only a few seconds the naturalistic sounds end and heavily treated, almost mechanical element take over. Over the next few minutes we're flung between glitchy, almost minimal techno passages and the most glacial of musique concrete. The material has been so warped and treated that the unsuspecting listener might well mistake the clicking edits and wafts of static to be emanations of a modular synth. More recognisable insect sounds do appear from time to time but they're often paired with amped up mechanical counterparts that almost seem to parody the fuzzy sounds of the bees.

And what of the concept? Of the idea of the hive society? With the exception of the second track, His primary role was to mate with the Fertile Queen, each title signals a certain loss or dethronement by other forces. Take track three, The general skepticism of the constitutional monarchy was justified as new forms of Authority surfaced, which could have been lifted from a lecture of Michel Foucault (but doesn't appear to have been). The same formula is found here; drones, natural sounds alienated, mechanised, rendered strange and impersonal. Several ambient passages give the insect sounds more space and acoustic dynamics, hinting towards the architecture of their origin. But the bees seem to have been assimilated by a more powerful collective. The local organic whole is radicalised into a relentlessly machinic and unfamiliar thing. The term drone is a virtual pejorative when applied to a person and in the age of remote asymmetric warfare it also conjures images of bombed out villages in far flung corners of the 'war on terror'. Here again is that fearful side of the hive collective that led to the rejection of the organicist metaphor in early Modernity.

The final track The surviving Virgin Queen hid in the shadows of her former kingdom is suitably evocative, matching its title with scratching, scraping sounds as if the Queen was dragging her bulky body through the underworld of her Kingdom overthrown. A low base sound begins to rise and fall while what could be the intermittent sweeping of an electronic surveillance system begins to whir and hum. The feeling is tense, anxious and confusing, perfectly capturing the sense of alienation felt by the modern neo-Liberal drone within the globalised economy.

This is certainly one of the least accessible records I have encountered from Gruenrekorder and those who appreciate their more naturalistic sounding releases will likely be perplexed. Nevertheless it's a record that rewards replaying and a good degree of thought. The weightiness of the subject matter is perhaps not well matched by the abstract and somewhat academic quality of the music. It's not an easy marriage to get one's head around, although if you do then repeated listens bring to mind up suggestive motifs of overthrown sovereign insects, biomechanical hives and humanity rendered as an ant hill by the relentless forces of global capitalism. A hierarchy of drones without a Queen.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Duncan Simpson
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