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Posted on March 15th, 2014 (9:00 am) by Matt LaBarbera

It’s rather difficult to separate the facts that brought a piece of music into existence from the music itself, especially if it’s slightly more interesting than writing a few songs on tour, then hopping into a studio to record. The ontogeny of an album is fascinating precisely because it gives an otherwise inaccessible insight into the artistic intent, the goals in mind when releasing the piece. For the debut, Pressures, of Berlin-based quartet UNMAP, it’s the very details of its conception that brings into focus its various successes and missteps. Those high-minded aspirations, now fully evolved as a Sinnbus release, generate an infectious bricolage of dark electro-pop.

UNMAP were originally artist Mariechen Danz and Berlin musician Alex Stolze attempting to provide fitting musical accompaniment for her pieces, but somewhere along the line the gallery soundtrack metamorphosed into pop songs. Concurrent with her work in UNMAP, Danz’s exhibit at Galerie Tanja Wagner, Imprint Pressures, opened and, not surprisingly, a great number of the themes and influence carried over, especially those surrounding the poverty and instability of linguistic forms. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising that something as seemingly anti-cerebral as pop would be the sonic outlet for Danz’s work. Pop music—or at least UNMAP’s take on it, which includes cribbing from R&B, trip-hop, indietronica, and others—seems like a fitting arena to engage these concepts given the surfeit of sonic modalities available, the sheer amount of space to play around in.

Opener “Wire Rule” kicks things off relatively minimally, finding Danz’s voice accompanied by thudding drums and finger snaps before the whining synths and smooth bass files in. Single “The Gold Route” visits a recurring criticism of blind capitalism suspended over a groaning string section and scaling synths, while “Purity” calls into mind a similar squeaky creakiness of Until the Quiet Comes with an added static stomp. Still, most striking about all of these songs is the perfect, measured quality of Danz’s sprechgesang that maintains a simultaneous rational, matter-of-fact distance and capability of emotive proximity.

Songs like “Monkey Effort” and “Altar” showcase UNMAP’s more adventurous, less pop-conscious side. “Monkey Effort” slowly builds from a landscape of gentle strings and piano into a shimmering electro-acoustic hive replete with warm buzzes, soaring whirs, a faint choir, and church bells. The result is a cinematic farrago that gestures towards the music’s original design as soundtrack. “Altar,” on the other hand, is the closest they get towards earning the “noise” tag on their Bandcamp page, when a brief synth cascade pummels the half-way point and the rest of the track is left to pick up the pieces.

The album’s biggest failures occur at those moments where the articulation of the themes—assuming that these lyrics, “It’s just that I’m obsessed with attempting to establish some basic connection between body, history, destiny, politics of language,” resemble a sort of thesis for the album—overshadows the importance of the music itself. “A B C (Hierarchy of the Alphabet),” as the second title implies, seeks to highlight certain privileges embedded within words and their configurations, but, realistically, hearing a recitation of the alphabet, A-through-Z, twice is not terribly engaging and the instrumentation has difficulty keeping interest. If anything, the song just reinforces the stance that double-U is a ridiculous sound for a letter.

Concern with names, meaning, categorization, and arbitrariness has been at the forefront of Western consciousness since Saussure scribbled his infamous waveform and UNMAP’s debut tackles the issue valiantly through something smart, capable, and, most importantly, unconsumed by the concepts that bore it. While it would be intriguing to hear what some of these sketches were as gallery pieces and not the catchy, calculated pop they are now, these songs adroitly skirt the line between artistically ambitious and crowd-pleasing. Besides, even after all the rhetoric is stripped away from the insistence of Pressures toward rupture and pushing though, you’re still left with some pretty good tracks and that’s a hell of a statement in itself.

Track List:

  1. Wire Rule
  2. Pirates
  3. The Gold Route
  4. Purity
  5. Monkey Effort
  6. Take Over
  7. Altar
  8. Stone Head
  9. When to Lead and When to Follow
  10. A B C (Hierarchy of the Alphabet)
UNMAP Pressures Sinnbus Berlin
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

70 / 100
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