Byetone – SyMeta (and the brain’s perception of spatial relationships)

I bought this record because it was’s 2011 album of the year, maybe this makes me some sort of mindless conformist pseud, but nevermind. I still enjoy the giddy thrill of buying records I haven’t heard, splashing out my £10 and taking a gamble.

[This is not a review by the way, I don’t review records. Even if it may read like one at first….]

picture of Byetone CD

The artwork on the sleeve is embossed, making it sexy like an American Psycho business card.

It’s always difficult going into an album thinking ‘this is the BEST thing released this year’ it carries quite a burden of expectation (see my last post for more on that). SyMeta starts relatively inauspiciously with a simple back and forth noise-wave drum sound, but then does that lovely thing where another rhythmic element comes in which re-contextualises what you’ve just heard as a different part of the beat. There’s probably a proper word for that but I don’t know it.

Beyond that the track, called ‘Topas’, unfolds nicely enough with some more shifts in rhythm, urgent sounding bleeps competing for your attention at high tempo and lots of sinister inhuman textures. It segues seamlessly into the next track ‘T-E-L-E-G-R-A-M-M’ which is more of the same. I liked it but it didn’t feel like OMG Album Of The YEAR material.

My first thought was ‘this is just like a straighter version of what Autechre were doing around LP5′, though the sounds aren’t identical. I’d say the sounds Byetone uses are similar to the ones you get coming out of Reaktor Prism. The whole album has the feel of some very deep software synths trying to recreate an analogue feel. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that no sound on the record took the trouble to pass through a wire on its way to the final mixdown.

The textures all have a harsh metallic quality to them, sounding hollow and cold but with some sort of gloss, and ultimately they’re what have hooked me in and convinced me that whilst I’m not going to say it’s the best thing that came out last year I can see what’s good about it. Structurally the tracks are classic ‘add a bit, add a bit more, take some away, repeat to fade’ tracks, and by initially focussing on that I missed what is most interesting about this record which is the sounds themselves, and how he’s balanced these cold inhuman Ae-like textures with clubby structures.

SyMeta is, in a nutshell, a cold, inhuman-sounding techno record – but it’s one of the most fun cold, inhuman techno records I’ve heard.

It made me think about space within synthetic sounds. I read a book about neuroscience and music recently (which I’ll be talking about more later). It’s full of nuggets like the fact that you can confuse people as to what instrument they’re hearing by simply removing the attack portion of its soundwave. It’s just that split second at the start of a sound which seems to carry all the character. What the implications of this are for drone-metal bands I’m not sure. Likewise when you hear a sound properly, like a bell chiming for example, it evokes the material it’s made of and the space it’s in.

It occurred to me that what I love about certain kinds of synth sounds is that they evoke structures and spaces that don’t, or even can’t, exist. People always flail around for adequate descriptions (as I’ve done above) because their brain is telling them that what they’re hearing is some sort of impossible structure with an infinity of reverberating semi-liquid columns stretched across a gaping oval of copper ON THE MOON or some such thing. It’s a sign without a signifier, or a simulacra of something that isn’t real.

A Calabi-Yau manifold

You could use a Calabi-Yau manifold as your oscillator, as George Formby once said.

But despite this, your brain does its best to evoke the properties this weird thing making the sound would have if it did exist. Images come to mind, textures and temperatures. Even something basic like tempo is filled in by your brain. High bpm music feels ‘fast’, low bpm music feels ‘slow’ – but there’s actually a disconnect between what these things mean for music and physical objects. This despite the obvious fact that an instrumentalist has to move faster to play a fast piece, you still perceive it as fast even if you can’t see a musician. If you don’t believe this, play a very fast and very slow record for a young child and ask them to dance to it. The understanding of tempo is innate and not linked to the movements needed to create the music. More likely it ties in with the human heartbeat, hence the preference for 4/4 as a time signature.

So imagine the maths your brain and ears, working in tandem, have to do to conjure up the image of the non-object which creates a synth sound. Unlike a record which uses conventional instruments, a sound-design record is inherently evocative, because it has to be. You can’t just say ‘that’s a nice accordion solo’ because there’s no reference point for it. Sure you can say ‘that’s a synth’, but a synth isn’t just one thing. The more complex synths or digital processing become, and the more divorced they are from physical equipment, the deeper the potential for these utterly alien sounds.

I love analogue synths as much as the next sentimental geek, but digital synths offer a richness that goes beyond any other instrument. It reminds me of the quote from Autechre that with the equipment available today, there’s no excuse for any one band to sound like any other band.

‘Pure’ electronic records are just about exploring sound. People use strange flowery language to try and describe them and link them back to feelings or ideas, but really they’re just struggling to cope with the awe at the power of their own minds.

(As an aside, I wonder if you could reverse engineer an object from a synth sound using a 3D printer? You can certainly do it with 2D images.)


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