What is it about graphic designers and electronic music? Many fine electronicists maintain day-jobs in the design trade, among them such esteemed figures as Underworld, Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree. Perhaps the association can be credited to the easy transition from desktop publishing to laptop composition. Or perhaps designers simply have had a lot of free time during the recession that followed the popping of the late-’90s Internet investment bubble.
While pondering the subject, you might direct your attention to Red Antenna (at redantenna.tv), a Manhattan record label and design house with a growing catalog of CDs and 12″s, where many of the employees are also musicians. You might also direct your web browser to redantenna.tv, the company’s website, where EPs of MP3 files complement the label’s hard goods.
Red Antenna [Assembled], a 17-track CDR compilation from 2002, served to introduce the label’s work. The album starts with two segments of soulful pointillism: “Karo,” by Karl Zeiss, and “New Fixture,” by Kino-Glaz. Both have the beat-box cunning of Sign o’ the Times-era Prince, “Karo” with its sharp pulse and “Fixture” with its echoes of such proto-electronica phenomena as Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Dave Stewart’s production for Eurythmics. The collection wends through a variety of elegant forms, including mid-tempo house (com.munikation) and ersatz hip-hop (Candy Chang). Most of the record hews to a comfortable beat, though Singlest toys with microsonics and unnerving pacing on two songs, and Tether Versio’s “Marine Biology” goes further out, emphasizing atmosphere over rhythm.
If you prefer more irony in your musical diet, opt instead for The New Electric Policy 2, an 18-track 2003 compilation CD that embraces the upbeat new-wave-era influence hinted at on Assembled. Gary Numan and Kraftwerk reign here, as evidenced by the jokey vocals on tracks by Sneak Thief and Chang. Variable-X recreates the drama of ’70s soundtracks. There’s also a heavy chunk of amiable house music, courtesy of mental tsp, Zeiss and com.munikation. The New Electric Policy 2 is party music, from the George Clinton-style funk of Dykehouse to speaker-shaking dub of tomorrowland. Several of the artists who pump up the volume here appeared in more circumspect mode on Assembled, and it’s refreshing to hear them have fun, but you might find the goofiness factor high occasionally.
Self Contained Unit is the pseudonym of Stephen Thurman, who titled his Red Antenna CDR album Everyone Doesn’t Do Anything, though like most electronic musicians he does most everything on his album himself. Thurman adheres to the aforementioned “New Electric Policy,” celebrating the ebullience of good ol’ new wave with barebones rhythm tracks and synth-pop maneuvers. The retro sounds may be a little much for folks who’d rather not disregard the musical advances of Autechre or, for that matter, Nine Inch Nails, but Thurman truly has a way with a simple, memorable melody.
Tether Versio’s Assembled track, “Marine Biology,” also appears on his Greyscale Wonder full-length, a deep bummer of claustrophobic submersion. Versio (aka Shawn Lindaberry) is also a member of Red Antenna acts Rewind Wonderland and Kino-Glaz. The dozen tracks on Greyscale range from the kind of glitchy percussives that sound like the dance music of subhumans (“The Information”) to nuanced washes of slow, throbbing tones. Lindaberry is no prisoner of looping; his work expands and contracts, grows and descends, with an attention to composition. Listen to “The Information” through to its end and you hear it reduce to the bare static of its rhythmic element. Shortly into “Union Square Has Frozen Over,” the rhythm disappears, and when the rumbling returns it has no discernable rhythm at all, which makes the song all the more threatening. Nor is Lindaberry a technology fetishist; on “A Mirror Industry” he milks an acoustic guitar for a sullen dirge.
Red Antenna released its first album in 2001, a Kino-Glaz CDR titled Parafact_Cinema. (The CDR format persisted until Electric Policy 2, the label’s 14th full-length and its first properly pressed CD. That was followed in mid-2003 by Tomorrowland’s Anemone, the label’s second proper CD, a rocking meld of colorfully synthesized sounds and groovy lo-fi drums and guitars.) In 2002, vinyl began to supplement the digital output, starting with a five-act 12″ collection, Impulse Sealer, which mixed Assembled tracks with other material. A pair of four-song 12″s started off 2003: Karl Zeiss’ Berlin — New York and com.munikation’s 1 Westbound. Zeiss’s collection trades the buzzing whimsy of his “Karo” for a more straight-faced minimal house. The com.munikation collection is likewise club-oriented.
Since early in 2002, Red Antenna has also released a series of “online objects,” or free MP3 compilations, most of them compilations. The site should be checked in on regularly, because these online objects won’t necessarily remain online forever. One highlight is Airboxing, which ingeniously pairs two acts, sub.q and mental tsp, for a sequential remix game: the first track is sub.q’s “Airlock,” followed by mental’s remix of the track, followed by sub.q’s remix of the mental remix, and finished off with mental’s … well, you get the picture.
Though no longer online, there had been an excellent six-song EP by Idmonster, The Pleasures of Life, which managed to go from Ninja Tune-style downtempo fusion to Scanner-style spoken-confessional theatricality to an actual song, the title cut, complete with an unreliably optimistic chorus of which the Smiths would’ve been proud. (Four of those tracks are now available on a 3″ CDR, also titled The Pleasures of Life.)
Perhaps Idmonster’s singing signals what’s yet to come from this tech-minded label with a penchant for pop. One obvious supposition about the intersection of electronic music and graphic design is the simple desire, on the part of the designers, to have good background music to work to. Red Antenna, however, also produces fine listening for after hours.
This article appeared, in slightly different form, in the spring 2003 issue of e/i magazine (see ei-mag.com). Full disclosure: The designers at Red Antenna produced the first two issues of e/i.