Long before its initials became synonymous with background music for spring break amphetamine binges, electronic music represented a counterculture far more sophisticated. Groups like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin gained near mainstream popularity in the late 90’s for their true alternative to conventional pop music, their songs nearly academic in their depth and experimentation. Instead of conveying lyrics, vocals are often processed, unintelligible fragments which complement the dynamic drum patterns, synth lines, and samples that comprise hauntingly beautiful records like Richard D. James Album or Geogaddi.
On their latest LP The Gamble, German-based trio nonkeen continue this tradition of making the dense, instrumental electronica coined Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), and over its 9 track runtime, utilize a wide pallet of production choices which weave between meandering atmosphere and immediate songwriting. Based on tape loops the band wrote before the turn of the century, The Gamble blends the warm tonality of that era with a subtly steady direction, one perfectly calculated over nonkeen’s 8 year recording process for this record that effectively repurposes the band’s retro aesthetic toward their modern soundscapes.
Much like its multi-colored, geometric album cover, each song on The Gamble is relatively diverse from the one before it, yet collectively they form an album of such range, listening back is like examining an abstract painting, held together in concept only by each microcosm’s distinctness. Opening track “Invention Mother” almost sets a false precedent here, as its swelling piano chords barely deviate the whole song, drifting seamlessly into “Saddest Continent on Earth”, another simple, ambient cut that might lead one to label The Gamble as one of those albums to study to, nothing more.
But once record highlight “Ceramic People” kicks in, all preconceived notions are thrown out the window. Coming off the stagnant first two songs, “Ceramic People” starts with an unsettlingly gorgeous blend of heavy synth and airy guitar, and once the real drums unfurl, nonkeen truly begin showing off their musical chops, creeping to the song’s midway burst like a seasoned post-rock band. Somewhere between being an eerier Tycho and an electronic version of early Mogwai records, the way nonkeen pace themselves on The Gamble creates such a rich texture, it moves across its length with an urgency not found in average instrumental music.
Featuring parts recorded on the same machines they used a decade before, there’s an overwhelming tonal intimacy on some of these tracks. The lo-fi production seemingly contradicts the dark, sleek rhythms of tracks like “Ceramic People” and closer “Re:turn!”. However, contrast being a large theme present on The Gamble, nonkeen keeps it cohesive on this LP by utilizing extreme difference only in key sections, and knowing when to play it close to the chest. The Gamble’s first half is highly representational of this attention to detail, with the songs following “Ceramic People” building off its sonic deviation just slightly enough to keep curiosity high.
Also, unlike most albums without vocalists or lyrics, another one of The Gamble’s strengths is its potently condensed run time. Clocking in at a genre conservative 42 minutes, nonkeen are so crafty when establishing that it never feels contrived. Middle tracks “Animal Farm” and “This Beautiful Mess” feature unexpected grooves and subdued horn parts, used sparingly enough to not distract from the album’s downtempo demeanor. In fact, only album climax “Chasing God Through Palmyra” breaks up The Gamble’s overall vibe, boasting a huge, jazzy mid-section and piercing vocal layers that wouldn’t be out of place on a later-career Flying Lotus record.
Riding a well-executed balance between real and programmed percussion, “Chasing God” stands out for its chilling grandiosity, a trait rarely found on this album. Rather, nonkeen’s brand of electronic music relies on carefully picked instrumentation and clever arrangement to impress, not reliably liked drum triggers or well-known vocal features. In this sense, nonkeen are artistic standouts within the oversaturated market of digital composers, and although they share similarities with their IDM forefathers, it’s their masterful equilibrium of what makes electronic music both challenging and exciting that makes them and The Gamble such a welcomed deviation in expectations.
– Andre I.