To anyone who’s spent enough time listening to (or even tried their hand at creating) certain varieties of electronic music, a compositional impasse can become apparent: that of the sequencer, and what to make of it.
With “live” music, it can be easy to take for granted qualities like dynamism, intonation, and even various rhythmic and harmonic “imperfections” in a performance or recording. All of these can give a piece of music a defined particularity and character relative to the people who made it. The sequencer, by contrast, can seem almost paradoxically too perfect for its own good—capable of arranging together all the instruments of a work in perfect synchronization, at whatever tempo the composer desires, and play every pitch in order with customizable options for note lengths to the infinitesimal degree.
And yet to many prospective ears, this convenience is both a feature and a bug. The overabundance of control presents a new problem for musicians to solve: do you avow the gridlike structure of your music and compose in a style that emphasizes those qualities, or do you obfuscate its sequenced nature with compositional details that complicate its sound and feel?
As enchanted forest, the Philadelphia-based duo Em Boltz and Noah Jacobson-Carroll try both, using their latest album Semele’s Tryst as a kind of fertile creative ground for different compositional modes of their colorful synthesizer and sample based electronic music.
Opening track “Wish on a wing,” for instance, falls firmly in the former camp, acting as a kind of thesis statement for the record. As a sample loops a pedal tone (a kind of repeating note) in C, brief and jaunty synthesizer melodies dance around it with an almost childlike curiosity, cueing the listener in on both the album’s broad aesthetic palette and its playful, exploratory mood.
Meanwhile, a song like “Peony” dances at the edges of structure—it’s not purely arrhythmic or free-form, and its compositional framework is present to the keen ear. Yet it also instills a feeling of constant and subtle movement. The central loop it’s composed from is always disrupted in some manner, whether through being interrupted with different samples and noises, lasting longer or shorter than the listener anticipates, or even abruptly glitching at a moment’s notice. The cumulative effect is a piece of music that at once offers both familiar patterns and surprises in miniature.
Semele’s Tryst is chock-full of tracks like this – micro-songs that allow the duo to extend and articulate their sequencing chops with variations on different musical concepts. “Star nose” opens on a pulsating acid bassline, with bright flourishes of synthesizers outlining a harmony around it. By the time breakbeat drums are introduced, the song’s polyrhythmic feel is readily apparent, with patterns satisfyingly interlocking and diverting from each other.
”Thrills & tributaries,” one of the album’s longer tracks, contrasts various samples with upbeat two-note patterns to hypnotic ends, as sounds are slowly layered on top of each other and altered. Of particular note are the drum hits throughout the song. They’re rhythmically scattered and run through dramatic effects and processing, giving them the quality of adding timbral coarseness and impressionistic detail more than purely serving the function of timekeeping.
Delving further into the album’s tracklist reveals additional oddities. “Tumble” offers emphatic, wondrous soloing, and the following “Sailboat” patiently stacks layers of droning melodies and drum samples that tease out an eventual crescendo of breaks and glitches by the song’s halfway point.
Meanwhile, the amusingly titled “Burger in heavenly fries” carefully modulates the tempo of multiple samples set against each other, creating a kind of rhythmic parallax effect. “Seven,” the album’s penultimate track, proves to also be one of its most chaotic, rapidly cycling through breakneck rhythmic patterns and dissonant spectral details.
The experience of listening to Semele’s Tryst is like that of watching two enthusiastic magicians practice routines from their bag of tricks together in real-time, guided by an unrestrained passion for craft itself and the invigorating spirit of collaboration more than any necessarily coherent end from either of those things. Which of course isn’t to say that the results aren’t still gratifying by their own merits either—if anything, it’s precisely that degree of sincerity and willingness to be led by impulse that leads to many of the album’s most enthralling moments, and where the group’s own charm in their approach towards electronic music becomes the most apparent.