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Loke Rahbek, "City of Women"

cover imageI have been on an extended Croatian Amor bender since last year's Love Means Taking Action, so I was delighted when I found out that Loke Rahbek was releasing his first solo album under his own name on Editions Mego.  Unsurprisingly, City of Women does not sound much like Croatian Amor at all, as Rahbek has been involved in at least a dozen other projects.  In fact, this release is billed as sort of a culminating convergence of Rahbek's varied and prolific history of underground music projects, though it is not nearly the radical compositional leap forward one might expect from that statement.  Instead, City of Women is a lot like a well-produced Loke Rahbek buffet that offers discrete forays into the many facets of his artistry (noise, dense synth soundscapes, sound collage, and even an occasional piano miniature) rather than a thematically consistent major work.  Several of the piece are quite good, naturally, but expectations should be moderated: this is only another characteristically fine Rahbek release rather than the beginning of a bold new chapter.

Editions Mego

The album opens with "Like A Still Pool," a drone piece built upon a densely throbbing foundation of modular synthesizer that sizzles, snarls, and fitfully decays into bubbling entropy.  It does not evolve much beyond that strong theme, but it is compelling enough in its visceral force and textural eruptions to grab and hold my attention for its entire duration.  The following "Fermented," however, takes quite a different direction, exploring a relatively simple and unmolested progression of piano arpeggios.  While there is a consistent sort of cascading melody, the emphasis seems to be primarily upon the textural juxtaposition of the rippling piano patterns with mysterious beeps and hissing field recordings.  Also of note: the brief piece abruptly stops without warning, so it mainly just serves as a disorienting and pastoral interlude to set the stage for the more substantial title piece.  At its core, "City of Women" is a reprise of the "Still Pool" aesthetic, but more advanced compositionally, as it offers a bit more in the way of mood, melody, and dynamic arc.  It is definitely one of the album’s more evocative pieces, achieving an appealing degree of neon-lit Bladerunner-esque futurist grandeur.  The languorous and swaying ambient drone of "A Mess of Love" continues that brief hot streak to a minor degree, but it is quite clear at this point that City of Women is largely a strange and kaleidoscopic trip of brief and vaguely hallucinatory vignettes, a revelation reinforced by the ominous tonal shift brought by the brooding, pulsing, and hazy collage aesthetic of the following "Palm."  There are a lot of interesting motifs that surface in the first half of the album, but they rarely feel substantial and tend to flog a single motif until Rahbek feels like fading out to make room for the next piece.

If the album continued in that fitfully intriguing and oft-subdued vein indefinitely, I would be a somewhat disappointed man, as City of Women often feels a lot like a series of mysterious preludes to a pay-off that never comes.  Fortunately, the album's second half is enlivened by a pair of heavier pieces that tear through the slow-moving flow of sketches and meditative reveries.  The first is "In Piles of Magazines," a menacing and lurching bed of throbbing drones, grinding swells, and ugly oscillating overtones.  Near the end, Rahbek embellishes his gnarled horror with some precarious glimpses of more harmonically welcome territory and recurring deep exhalations, which only makes the whole thing more unsettling.  Also, unlike many other pieces on the album, "Magazines" boasts a clear ending that comes at exactly the right time.  To my ears, it is easily the best piece on the album.  After that nightmare subsides, Rahbek initially seems intent on wading back into more pastoral and piano-centric waters, but "A Word A Day" runs its course in under a minute and the rumbling, murky dread of "Swimsuit" creeps to ruin the bucolic scene quite conclusively.  As much as I enjoy Croatian Amor, Rahbek seems most at home when he is indulging his darker impulses, which is hardly surprising given that runs a (mostly) noise label, plays in a long-running noise project (Damien Dubrovnik), and has collaborated with Puce Mary.  The album's final piece is "Take Pleasure in Habits," a piece that initially feels like an otherwise straightforward synthscape that fitfully fades in and out of focus, but soon deepens with addition of an erratically quaking industrial undercurrent.  While it ends a bit too suddenly for my taste (a recurring theme), it provides an arguably fitting closure to the album, as it is the most successful blending of Rahbek’s melodic and noise sides to surface here.

Curiously, Editions Mego describes City of Women as "21st century pop music," a perplexing description that would be far more apt for Rahbek's work in Croatian Amor (pop music deconstructed) or Lust For Youth (cannibalized '80s synthpop).  To my ears, there are actually no elements of pop music to this album at all, though it could be argued that the lack of a human element abstractly captures the sterile disconnection of our century quite effectively.  While I doubt that is what Rahbek was going for here, the album’s clean production and synth- and machine-centrism was undoubtedly a deliberate step away from the more soulful recent Croatian Amor fare and the tape hiss-heavy and homespun collage aesthetic of Croatian Amor's past.  If anything, City of Women sounds like a sketchbook of ideas for a stab at being a serious composer (as opposed to being an influential DIY/underground one).  That seems like a perfectly reasonable ambition, as many of these pieces could have easily been the foundation for a more substantial work in the same direction.  Instead, however, they all wound up here in a gallery of promising unrealized ideas.  I am perfectly fine with that, as there are a handful of enjoyable pieces here that display facets of Rahbek's artistry rarely glimpsed in his other (predominantly collaborative) work, but this uneven collection feels like a bit of a missed opportunity as a whole.