It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
"Song of Los," the second track off of The Devil's Walk, hinges around the cooed line, "losing voices for the day," wafting up from beneath throbbing electronics. The words come from producer Sascha Ring's own throat, belying the fact that he has, in fact, found his voice on his fourth album as Apparat. Originally known for crafting dancefloor-friendly minimal techno befitting of his hometown of Berlin, as Ring has matured, his productions have increasingly explored the spaces between the beats. By the time of 2007's Walls, he took to the road with a live band. In 2011, if there's any artist he's taken a page from, it's breakout dubstep producer James Blake. Confident in his ability to program the drums, the challenge now lies in trusting that "other" instrument, the human voice. Aside from the Reich-ian instrumental "A Bang in the Void," Ring sings on almost every one of Walk's ten tracks (dueting with Austrian vocalist Anja Plaschg on "Goodbye"). His newfound vocal presence steadies the furious surge of strings and cresting rhythms of "Ash/ Black Veil," gives a nu-romantic tinge to the stuttering breaks of "Candil De La Calle," and his throat floats upwards with the flood of electronics on "Black Water." Ring trusts his voice so that as the ruminative piano, brushed snare and throbbing noise fades away during "Your House is My World," we find that quavering sound is in fact the song's center.
At a time when fellow Warp acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre were pushing the outer limits of electronic music, programming increasingly complicated musical algorithms, Scottish duo Boards of Canada offered a different path. Theirs was built on pastoral analog synth washes and stripped-down but hip-hop-heavy drums, all of it suffused with uncanny sense of nostalgia, with disembodied voices wafting through the mix. Their Warp debut Music Has the Right to Children is a watermark of electronic music, and needless to say, it's their example that the next generation of producers followed. The EP that preceded it, 1995's Twoism, shows that brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eion had their melancholia down from the start. All the earmarks of Music are fully-formed: The uneasy synth tones of "Directine," the shuffling snares and wobbling melody of the title track, the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom keyboard preset and the group's obsession with numerology on "Sixtyniner." They also do a decent job of getting into the pounding electronica of that era with "Basefree." It's telling that "Seeya Later" would appear unadulterated on Hi Scores, while closer "Smokes Quantity" would return to wrap up Music. Even the brothers knew they were onto a winning sonic formula.
Was there a bigger stylistic shift in 2011 than James Blake? After building up a lumberyard's worth of buzz for a slew of singles and EPs that defined and ratified the dubstep template, Blake dropped the bass on his debut full-length. Rather than the kinetic propulsion of a single like "CMYK," Blake emphasized his own spare pipes and unhurried piano balladry. It's a neat trick, making his soulful and stark Feist cover align more with Robert Flack than Burial. At least until the bass trembles underneath like a California quake. Blake's genius comes from couching both voice and piano in aural space that borders on the vertiginous. Hear how such negative space overwhelms the man and his words about "falling...falling" for the cavernous throbs of "The Wilhelm Scream." Or how his vocal shadow follows him around on "I Never Learnt to Share" (a shadow that sounds incredibly like Antony Hegarty). That is, until a glowering bass makes the plaint of "My brother and my sister don't speak to me/ but I don't blame them" distort to the point of abstraction.
Michaela Melin has cut a curious path in her three decades of music-making. She's a member of F.S.K., an '80s German new wave band that has not only emulated the country stylings of the Mekons, but also delved into techno, going so far as to have Detroit don Anthony "Shake" Shakir produce their 2004 album. Naturally, that idiosyncratic streak also applies to Melin's solo work. Her first solo album, named for a spa town in the foothills of the Black Mountains, is a carefully crafted yet unhurried affair. Taking cues from Cluster and Kompakt's "ambient pop," Melin uses primitive drum machine tocks and bell-like tones to build up a head of steam. The crystalline chimes of "Brautlied" waft like snowflakes across the aural landscape, an unadorned beat nudges along the chord organ hiccups and harp plucks on "Verkehr," both showcasing her careful pacing and expert way of making everything cohere. But Melin's sense of restraint is best exemplified near album's end: on the title track, a slow martial kick couples with multiple piano lines, while closing cover of Roxy Music's "Song for Europe" highlights Melin's Nico-like drawl over strummed acoustic guitar.
For a decade, Gabor Schablitzki worked in conjunction with partner Sren Bodner as Wighnomy Brothers, making some of the finest, wiggliest minimal techno of the past decade. But slowly, Gabor's work as Robag Wruhme began to eclipse the Bros. productions. His first album, Wuzzelbud "K.K." was about as close as any producer has come to the electronic pop madness of prime Aphex Twin, with healthy dashes of robo-dancehall thrown in for greater confusion. It took seven years for Wruhme to follow it up with Thora Vukk, with several high-profile mix CDs for labels like Kompakt appearing in the interim. Those intervening years found the man to be even more meticulous in his craft. Swiftly moving dance tracks slowly slide into low-key ambient miniatures, Wruhme straddling the two and giving both room to shine. For "Tulpa Ovi," piano and brushed drums dovetail with a gurgling beat as well as a field recording of kids in a classroom, while "Bommsen Bff" starts with a rubberbanding bass before precise hi-hats and almost insect-like chirps skitter across. On the title track, the random clang of bells slowly coheres over a shimmering keyboard wash and beat that gets whetted as the track progresses. Buried somewhere in the background is an electronic gurgle that sounds like a dial-up tone, reminding one of just how far we've all come in seven years.
Over the course of three full-lengths (beginning with 2001's Fahrenheit Fair Enough), the Chicago-by-way-of-Louisiana duo Telefon Tel Aviv offered a blissed-out, highly cinematic take on electronica far afield of what was happening in other U.S. metropolises and in Europe. Their first two albums were expert blends of glitchiness and vocal R&B, and their sumptuous remixes (for everyone from jazz figureheads like Oliver Nelson and Phil Ranelin to Apparat himself) were finally collected in 2007. But with 2009's Immolate Yourself, producers Charlie Cooper and Josh Eustis had elevated to the next level. The textures and layers were finessed yet intuited, the waning last seconds of "The Birds" as thrilling as its mid-song culmination. "Helen of Troy" embraces its '80s-ness but soars above such trappings, with the vocals dark and forlorn no matter how bright the surrounding layers got. Their profile would no doubt be raised with such a release. Only, Cooper was found dead from an accidental mixture of sleeping pills and alcohol scant days before the release of the album stateside. Eustis will no doubt carry on the TTA banner, but he also collaborated closely with Ring on The Devil's Walk, giving the proceedings that extra bit of electronic and emotional heft.