The atlas, the world map, as a document of knowledge is inherently reductive. It demarcates a world, frozen in time, and concomitantly denies the reality of development. The lines of cultural exchange, of cross-pollination, become obscured in stasis and national territories become the ill-fitting markers for something as protean as culture. An analysis of the contemporary music of Greece must—if it is not to become destructive—become an analysis of contemporary music of the world. Channels of influence are cut deep into the skin of communication technologies and the result is a deterritorialized music, a sonics separate from naturalized sets of relations. The notion of discursive sound becomes the primary impetus for Atlas, the newest project from Lisbon producer Branko. Set on demonstrating a permeability between codified cultural boundaries, the album sees Branko globetrotting, setting his sights on five locations and collaborating with local artists to produce a manifesto for a globalized dance music. This globetrotting is not in any way figurative, either. Sponsored by Red Bull Music Academy, Branko has actually produced the album while physically visiting these loci of dance music. However, in spite of its noble artistic ambitions, the actual content of Atlas does not live up to its syncretic conceptualism.
Having been one-fifth of Buraka Som Sistema, Branko has plenty of experience working with a diverse set of styles and guest artists, having incorporated himself into the massive network of postcolonial exchange, especially along the trajectories of his native Portugal. However, Atlas sees him drained of the visceral and reckless energy of his previous group. The production is slinkier, relegating the clattering and booming percussion largely to the position of adornment and not foundation. “Whole Night” features some rolling hand drums, but the focus is on a relatively smooth, warped and wavy synth shimmer. There’s intense vitality in the passages between Cape Town MC Okmalumkoolkat’s verses, but despite the fast pace of the cut, it feels comparatively lethargic.
Still, lethargy might be the arena Branko works best in. “Take Off” is bounded by cool snaps, wheedling synth lines, and a bouncing bass, but they all come together under the cool, understated fluency of New York’s Princess Nokia system. Despite the glut of peripheral instrumentation, the way the arrangements come together during in these more laid-back moments feels deceptively simple and almost organic. “Paris – Marselha” features even more stripped back production and Branko really allows his guest, Cachupa Psicadelica, with his benthic processed vocals to shape the trajectory of the track. If his global ambitions find any sort of success, it’s here in the fluidity of his collaboration, instead of the stitched mess that makes up most of the album.
Something such as “Made of Gold” comes off as thrown-together with a two-tone bass pulse forming the bedrock. It switches between the measured vocal delivery of SKIP&DIE and frenetic production that does not fit the delivery at all before shifting gears into something syrupy slow. It’s exhausting and frankly uninteresting as any “global” tinge dissipates in the farrago.
Perhaps the most curious thing about Atlas is that, aside from a few big missteps, there’s nothing wrong with the production; it’s just unexciting. After the first four cuts—admittedly, the woodwind sample on the title track is not repeated—all of Branko’s production tropes become immediately visible to the listener and the whole exercise begins to quickly lose its flavor. Maybe he wasn’t actually doing anything so revolutionary. He could have made the same exact music sitting in his Lisbon apartment, but he might’ve missed out on the free trip and promotional video. The only talents on display here are his guests, and for those interested in Baile Funk or Kwaito, Atlas could provide an entry point, but there is nothing truly exemplary, either as typifying genres or synthesizing them.
Cultural modes are volatile and the people who assess them just as much. The essence of a style can slip away so silently and that’s left is a sanitized product. Thankfully, something so disastrous is not at work on Atlas, but one can see the seams, the places where the whole project could split open. It’s an enjoyable listen the first time through, but it becomes tedious as Branko’s personality is quickly revealed to be somewhat bland. For a project advertised on the basis of diversity and communion, it feels like neither, the contributions of his guests pooling like an oil slick. There’s plenty of an enjoyment to be had reading this atlas, but the last thing it’ll accomplish is undoing those territorial lines.