I’m going to start this review on a bit of a tangent but bare with me. Lets go back to the beginning of the 1960’s. Using electronic components to synthesize audio was very much in its infancy and at the forefront of science. The first synthesizers were only available in university research laboratories. They were created using a mix of electronic apparatus, designed for scientific research purposes, sitting side by side with custom hand built circuitry to create what would now be considered the most rudimentary of modern synthesizers.
Out of this period came two American engineers and designers who took the steps required to move this technology from research laboratory to the public.
The first of which, and probably the best known, is Bob Moog, whose aim was to get these new sounds and techniques into the hands of musicians. He started with large scale modular designs, before creating a portable alternative with only the essential features. The Mini Moog became one of the most iconic synthesisers (if not instruments) of all time and cemented the techniques and design philosophy of Bob Moog into the canon of synthesis design for years to come.
On the other side of America, in California, another visionary had some similar ideas. However Donald Buchla’s approach to synthesis and design philosophy was greatly different.
Instead of trying to appeal to musicians by creating instruments that were easy to understand in a more traditional music structure, Buchla was interested in the experimental. He forced his users to think differently; to create music outside of what had been created before, rather than emulate the past with new equipment. This approach wasn’t as widely accepted as the Moog approach but still had many loyal fans and users who pushed the boundaries of what synthesis, and even music, could do.
Over time, these two styles of synthesis (the “east cost design” of Bob Moog and the “west cost design” of Donald Buchla) have become more intertwined. Modern synthesis design is full of mixes of the two styles; especially with the event of the modular format eurorack. Now the chance of having a Buchla style “complex oscillator” in a system alongside a traditional Moog designed “Ladder Filter” is commonplace in modern modular synthesizers.
But there is still opportunity for artists to delve purely into the design philosophy and thought process of the individual designers. They can do so by buying the synthesizers their companies still make.
And that leads us to Crush by Floating Points; a man who has fully adopted the Buchla style as part of his workflow and performance. A style that has worked its way into the very core of this album.
I’ve personally dabbled with both Moog and Buchla systems in the past. My personal Eurorack has a collection of units that mix and merge the two styles, but in their purest form. I’d say the main difference in thought process between the two original styles are as follows:
East coast systems are about building and refinement. You take fairly simple sound sources and then layer and chip away at them with filters and envelopes to create your sound. However, a Buchla system for me works the opposite way, You start with everything and its all about taming the potential into something usable rather than building something usable out of nothing. This may sound like minutia but its a hugely different creative approach that will result in massively different outcome, even if you have the same aims in your head when you start.
Floating points is a master of the second approach. He manages to take a Buchla system and tame enough of the experimental nature out of it to create traditional club tracks when he wants to. This is demonstrated perfectly on the centerpieces of this album “lesAlpx” and “Bias,” which when they are in full motion are all out modern classics.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t let the more experimental elements come out on “Crush”. Many of the tracks take a more complex approach to sound design and melody than the traditional looping hooks of most dance music.
The opening track makes this abundantly clear with a string and brass arrangement that is mixed in with with rapidly flickering samples from a electronically modulated amplifier. It sounds completely fresh and takes elements of the style he used in his first album and subverts them into the more electronic nature of this one.
String and Brass instrumentation are not the only things that help reign in some of the more eccentric nature of the Buchla system. The use of samples, including the Amen Break and other synthesizers and drum machines, intermingle and provide some grounding.
The blend between the more experimental and the refined is perfectly balanced on the album and allows the listener to go on journey or exploration and still have things to latch onto when they feel a little lost.
On first listen the one place I thought the experimental nature of the album fell apart was in its production. I first heard the album through a mono Bluetooth speaker and got very little out of it. The only reason I went back to the record was because of my love for his first album “Elaenia”.
Through a pair of headphones, the album opened up to reveal what a brilliant piece of work it is. The use of stereo is expertly done. Each instrument is given space within the stereo field, and effects allow movement that disappears on a mono system.
The album is also dynamically rich and organic for an electronic album. You mix that with the stereo design and it creates the lush world the album inhabits. A world that’s suffocated on lower quality and mono systems.
Its a bold decision to take this risk but a decision that has precedent from the more experimental electronic music. Especially that featuring Buchla systems.
Buchla synthesizers themselves were early adopters of the stereo field with modules that encouraged their performance on stereo and even quadraphonic systems. This synergy between experimental artists pushing the boundary of live performance and Buchla making systems that allowed them to do this has clearly rubbed off on Floating Points and this album.
On a good set of cans, or a nice stereo Hi-fi system, this album really comes to life. All the original shortcomings melted away and the album quickly became one of my most played this year.
“Crush” is a modern album of electronic music that’s routed in the history of the experimental side of synthesis; especially the Buchla system. It takes bold decisions and expects the listener to come to the album with a certain level of respect to reap its bountiful rewards.
It takes you on an adventure through the unknown, but, by blending the fringes and mainstream elements of synthesis and production, it never leaves you stranded. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year. I’m sure Don Buchla would be proud: