MP3 Discussion Group: Moritz von Oswald Trio’s ‘Vertical Ascent’

For the next few days, several fellow ardent listeners will join me here for the latest edition of’s “MP3 Discussion Group.” We’ll be discussing the recent album by the Moritz von Oswald Trio, Vertical Ascent (Honest Jons). The trio is von Oswald, plus Max Loderbauer, and Sasu Ripatti. (Ripatti’s album Tummaa, recorded under the name Vladislav Delay, was the subject of last week’s “MP3 Discussion Group here.) Give a listen to the Vertical Ascent album via streams available at the website of its record label, The week’s discussion will occur in the comments section below, and participation is, certainly, open to anyone who would like to join in. Thanks to the folk who have agreed to participate:

Colin Buttimer: I’ve contributed to Jazzwise, e/i, Signal to Noise, The Wire, Absorb, and, and I currently write reviews for BBC Online. I’m responsible for Hard Format, a website dedicated to the sublime in music design. My listening habits since 2004 can be checked out here and everything else is at

Julian Lewis: I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog with the accommodating mandate of covering “less obvious music.”In practice, this tends to mean most points along the electronica spectrum from drone to post-dubstep, and should probably include more jazz.

Alan Lockett: I’m a dabbler in electronic music reviews and commentary. Used to be a contributor to e/i magazine before it folded, but these days my writing is up on and Main interests currently lie in the ambient/drone area, but I also like to rummage around in the bins of the more adventurous quarters of techno/house and post-dub, picking up the odd scrap of IDM. I’m based in Bristol, in the Wild Wild South-West of England, which I like to think is a useful vantage point, being a breeding ground for stylistic currents that have impacted variously in recent decades on the electronic music landscape.

Joshua Maremont: I am a player of guitars, oscillators, and computers, based in San Francisco. My musical adventures on record have been with M-1 Alternative, Freezer, and ATOI, while I reserve the names Dazzle Painting and Thermal for my solitary sonic ruminations and keep Boxman Studies as my little label for noises without other homes. My listening obsessions wobble toward everything from mellotron prog and old metal to organic drones and installation music, from cold wave and minimal synth to shoegazing pop and head-nodding ambient dub, and I have written about a sliver of these in e/i magazine and elsewhere, as well as occasionally slipping them into DJ sets before anyone can stop me. I go to record stores by bicycle and only use headphones at home.

Michael Ross: I use a career as a music journalist to support my other career as a musician and producer. As the former, I write for Guitar Player, EQ, Sound on Sound, and, among others. As the latter, when not playing funk, country, and blues, I compose and perform guitar/laptop electronica under the moniker prehab.

11 thoughts on “MP3 Discussion Group: Moritz von Oswald Trio’s ‘Vertical Ascent’

  1. I’ll kick off with a few overview-type brushstrokes. On first listen, the focus seems to be on exploring a delimited set of sonic resources, and the four tracks come across like a series of variations on a theme — theme not as in melodic figure, but as sonic architecture — rather than distinct composed pieces. It’s a bit like a post- version of the bass-drums-keyboards jazz trio (note the jazzband-referencing nomenclature) exploring/stretching out, but on a tight leash. It’s apparently a distillation of a number of live shows, and you get a sense of a fusion of a (restrained) form of organic improvisation – plenty of patter and clatter from Ripatti — and an over(under?)lay of vapour trails from Loderbauer’s electronics and ripples and thrums from von Oswald’s Rhodes. The live band vibe is quite strong on “Pattern 1”, for example — cymbal and hi-hat work, burbling keys, s(h)immering synth curtains. I’m thinking something like “In a Silent Way” through the prism of dub and ’90s/’00s synthetics. Noticed some pretty slow and low bass depths here and there, especially on “Pattern 4” – heavy thump manners and reverbed-out snare that doesn’t seem a million miles away from Rhythm & Sound. Need another playthrough before any commitments…

  2. I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Mr. Oswald’s previous work. As a relative newbie to the world of electronica, and someone who, these days, goes to bed too early to frequent the “clubs” (save occasionally when they offer live music), my experience of minimalist techno is, well, minimalist—restricted to some café hanging in Berlin two years ago. Thus I approach Vertical Ascent unburdened by any sense of history, or the importance of the artist, listening to it merely as a piece of music. As such I found it underwhelming overall and in the case of Patterns 2, downright off-putting.

    Though I found the odd individual sound to be interesting, the aggregate didn’t seem to meld into a whole, especially on headphones, a medium I would have thought this type of music to be made for. It was interesting that on speakers, it worked a bit better. That might have been a case of second listen, but the sounds definitely seemed to blend better when sent into a room.

    Once again (referring to our recent Disquiet discussion of Vladislav Delay) I find Sasu Ripatti’s rhythms to be monotonous without crossing over into hypnotic. In my world, repetitive rhythms work only if they have such a strong sense of groove that they lift your spirit with each drum hit. Such is not the case here.

    While I appreciate the dub effects, I don’t find that they are used here to any great (wait for it) effect. And on Patterns 2 the graininess of the reverb tail is relentlessly awful sounding.

    Maybe others will help me see the genius I am apparently missing.

  3. If there’s one place to start with this record, it may be track three (“Patterns 3”), which, after a brief spate of abstracted sound, falls into line with a slowly driving rhythmic pulse, built around the deep thrum of what could be a talking drum, and then slowly layers accrue as old ones fall away.

    The piece could be a field recording of a college-quad drum circle, except that here the drums, in time, take on electronified feel. The track provides a good companion to the work Steve Reid’s done with Four Tet’s Kieren Hebden — in many ways, it’s what I expected that pairing to end up sounding like.

    Toward the end of “Patterns 3” I also hear the In a Silent Way chords that Alan mentions — much as they appear on the Jon Hassell album we discussed in an earlier MP3 Discussion Group.

    To Michael’s point, I hear how it falls short of hypnotic — it never goes the way of, say, Underworld’s “Rez” — and I do wish it made that leap.

    I’m trying to figure out if that was a conscious decision on their part, or a failure. I got to thinking about the predecessors to this music, especially the origins of minimal techno in Basic Channel releases. Those records sounded like postcards from a dank future. This album lacks the culture-shock tension of Basic Channel, but in its place is another kind of modesty, which brings Hassell to mind again, how this rudimentary clanging has the spare-parts feel of an ersatz street music — Hassell’s Fourth World ideal, minus the romance and the exotica.

  4. Although I retain the punk suspicion of ‘supergroups’ handed down in my teenage, the prospect of the two of the most vital musicians of the last 20 years playing together had me fairly breathless with fanboy excitment! So much so that I even bothered stitching Honest Jon’s brief samples into a single, more listener-friendly MP3 to upload to Lend Me Your Ears & fretting over second-guessing the trio’s choice of running order (I eventually stuck Patterns 2 on the end since as the most abstract it interrupts the flow, to these ears anyway…).

    In that pre-launch post (, I claimed – on the basis of the samples alone – that ‘Vertical Ascent’ “can be confidently put down already as one of LMYE’s highlights of 2009…” Five months later, having not listened to it so much since it came out – less than I expected, less probably than to the pre-release extracts! – I nonetheless still see it that way.

    It creates a largely unique sound world of great power & utter distinctiveness – “an amazing slithery, sheened 21st century space jazz – propulsive, percussive & rather distant”, as I called it back at the start of May.

    But I concede it doesn’t compare especially well with the best of either von Oswald or Delay. ‘Vertical Ascent’ is quite a cold, cloudy, remote experience.

    Whereas a piece like Delay’s wonderful ‘Anima’ (an easy way to lose an hour!) or von Oswald’s Basic Channel classics offer a contrasting warmth, for all their technological cores – their smeared sound is somehow more engaging & (especially Delay) more human than the machine-like MvOT.

    Anyway, after this quick opening – written before seeing other contributions – I’m looking forward to taking in some alternative perspectives.

  5. I think Marc’s “college-quad drum circle” description is right on the money. Unfortunately that would be a description of my personal vision of Hell—and I probably like Patterns 3 the best.

    “Hassell minus the romance and the exotica,” is also on the mark, but is a big minus; not that it has to be romantic or exotic, but a little passion would be welcome. Also the craftsmanship through which Hassell’s passion is filtered.

    I don’t think this music is presented exactly as it was played live, but neither does it strike me as fully constructed. Hassell’s recent work combines the best of those worlds, whereas I find this lacks both the excitement of a live performance and the structure of a molded studio recording—on second and third listens the term meandering comes to mind.

    I appreciate Julian’s enthusiasm, and I too have been victim of initial excitement over a recording that I find I don’t really listen to very much. But I wonder why that makes it qualify as a highlight of 2009. Shouldn’t that be reserved for the records that we do listen to?

    I must say that on the strength—or lack thereof—of Vertical Ascent and Tummaa, and in a world where Eivind Aarset, Amon Tobin, Arve Henriksen, Fennesz, Dhafer Youssef, Squarepusher, and Rudder exist, with all due respect, I still need to be convinced that Oswald and Ripatti are “two of the most vital musicians of the last 20 years.”

  6. I’m a bit late to the table on this one, my apologies. It’s great to be able to read your thoughts. Seeing some of you listening to this for the first time, I wondered whether that was an enviable position or not. I’ve listened to Vertical Ascent more than 40 times and if I look back at that experience, it makes for a distinct arc.

    The album was a long-awaited one, I was almost literally agog at the news that Von Oswald and Ripatti were collaborating. I’m always rather wary – though frequently guilty! – of making great claims on behalf of particular artists, but those two certainly ride high in my own personal firmament.

    Music is so often a state of mind – I’m minded of my experience of trying to listen to Steve Tibbetts a few years back and finding absolutely nothing to engage with, yet in the past three months I’ve listened to him almost 1000 times. A similar experience might just await you with regard to Vertical Ascent. Or it might not! I do realise these numbers I refer to signify very little, iTunes and are such statistical entities, but they’re useful to me in thinking about what has really engaged me.

    I recall my Vertical Ascent ‘arc’ began with ten or so sittings where I found little to make sense of – four seemingly very static rhythmic chassis wreathed with whorls of synths; some echoing dub effects, but ultimately very little to get to grips with. The hi-hats on Pattern 1 made me think of the sublime opener Black Satin on Miles’ On The Corner, but nothing else did. Pattern 2 caused me to think of some of Paul Schutze’s more tropical outings and of Kurtz’s darkened temple at the end of Apocalypse Now.

    I’m a slow learner, but I believe that artists I respect deserve effort on my part. Oftentimes I reap significant benefits from sheer doggedness. Other times, a piece of music refuses to give up its secrets and I’ll conclude that it either wasn’t for me or it ultimately lacked secrets worth the effort. The former happened with Vertical Ascent.

    At a certain point I found the fore- and middle ground shifting. What had initially appeared all too solid gave way to become a latticework of light and dark, a dense filigree that ultimately refused to cohere into a definable form because of its density. If anyone remembers those magic eye pictures which look like nothing more than a muddy splurge until a certain moment when your vision changes and you suddenly see the hidden image – well that’s as apt an analogy as I can come up with. Except that the experience is reversed: I inhabit or merge with a floating field or plain of sound rather than apprehend a finite architectural form as I do with, say, Kraftwerk’s uniquely elegant forms.

    I very much understand the sense of disappointment expressed regarding a Hassell-less rhythm-scape – that was my one of my initial thoughts, but I think the observation is ultimately misplaced. All three members of the MvOT are firmly centred within a post-soloist club culture. Of the names mentioned by Michael, Fennesz and to a lesser extent Aarset have touched upon this potential, but neither have explored the area with anything like the rigour of the Chain Reaction stable. They are, after all, solo-oriented performers and club culture, in musical terms at least, is less about the individual than the sublimated whole. I also strenuously disagree with the idea that this music is in any way meandering, my view is that it’s almost frighteningly disciplined.

    MvOT’s music synchronises perfectly with Basic Channel’s ouevre, but what’s fascinating about it is the difference in its textures and its potential to discover new territory through live performance. I hope for Moritz Von Oswald’s total recovery from last year’s stroke, anything else would be a tragedy on a cultural as well as a personal level.

  7. I am crawling into this discussion a bit belatedly, but I find it interesting that little attention has been paid to the presence here of Max Loderbauer, he of Fischerman’s Friend, Sun Electric, Chica And The Folder, NSI, and even in little (and among the most splendid) corners of The Orb. Pattern 1 seems right out of the early Sun Electric, recalled more recently in the beautiful track contributed by NSI to the Shut Up And Dance! Updated compilation on Ostgut, although it is perhaps bit darker in its hovering textures, while the cosmic dub of Pattern 4 echoes the work Loderbauer did with The Orb in the mid-1990s. And it is that period I hear here; not so much the mid-1990s of Chain Reaction minimalism but those of dank chill rooms and live-to-DAT collaborations. Which is by no means to say that these are three men in a room with a bong and DAT – does anyone use DATs anymore? – or to suggest that this is retro-ambience of the sort done so beautifully recently by Secede or Le Coeur. If this is an album of the early 21st Century, it nevertheless was made by three people who made their mark in the final decade of the last one, surprising me most of all in its choice of group name. This trio seems more a meeting of equals than a bandleader with two supporting players, and I find myself conjuring some variant of Max Und Moritz (of the grimly cautionary children’s stories) as a more descriptive name. There is something a bit hard to pin down about the record – its odd cover, its clanking middle – yet I find myself enjoying it more with each listen.

  8. Very interesting regarding Loderbauer’s contribution – I ignored him because I’m only aware of his NSI work (I love Plays Non Standards) and distantly of Sun Electric and wasn’t even aware he’d worked with The Orb. I don’t have a problem with the group’s name, I like its quaintness and playful referencing of jazz convention, particularly in light of its distance from that music.

  9. Well, I guess, picking up on Colin’s table metaphor, having been first to the furniture, I kind of left having brought little more than a few scraps to serve as starters, so am just sneaking back for afters. Good call from Joshua: hadn’t picked up on Loderbauer’s Sun Electric-al Orb-ic endowment. In fact the passages I warmed to seemed to be those faintly lit by Max’s silver hammerings.

    I suspect it’s more a kind of postmodern reference to the jazz naming convention that gave this project it’s nomenclature, since, if anything, MvO seems to contribute the least of the players here; I agree with Joshua that it’s not so much Moritz von Oswald as the Trio that should be highlighted, but, gratifyingly, they weren’t tempted to the excesses of one of those nightmare 60s/70s three-vehicle pile-ups a la ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’ or ‘Premiata Formeri Marconi’. Er, von Oswald Loderbauer Ripatti, anyone…? (Maybe, with graphological tweakage, vOLoRi…?)

    [Anyone notice Dwight Ashley, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Tim Story’s (intentionally?) comical A.R.S.(e)? (]

    And, yeah, dunno about that cover… deliberately mute and in-your-face unpoetic, but I don’t see the semiotic. I’m afraid, like with VD’s ‘Tummaa’ that we kicked around last week, I’m not seeing/feeling the sound either. (I can hear Colin’s Schuetze and Hassell hints, but it mainly makes me want to take MvOT off and play Schuetze and Hassell) Maybe too oblique for me… or is it me that’s too obtuse for it perhaps…? Perhaps after another 38 plays, the styes will fall from my listening eyes…

  10. Appreciated Marc’s comparison with Hebden/Reid – another ultra-percussive post-jazzy collision with impeccable lineage that can be magnificent but isn’t always engaging (old review of mine is at if you’re interested).

    Would love to hear each side unleashed on a remix or two of the other – a dose of Four Tet’s invention & sheer funk might do wonders for MvOT’s austerity (not sure I share the consensus that he’s gone off the boil lately…), while some of the trio’s cloudiness & ultra-modernity could be a great addition to the Hebden/Reid dynamic.

    Also grateful for Joshua’s flying the flag for Loderbauer. I only know him from a pretty unforgiving Resident Advisor mix (generally hated by RA types!) – will have to check out his other stuff, & refract the MvOT experience through it…

    Michael, I’ve conceded that ‘Vertical Ascent’ isn’t the peak of either Moritz or Delay’s output. I still think it’s a landmark, due to the intensity & distinctiveness of the sound they conjure up – albeit one I probably won’t return to as often as Colin!

    Seeing your own list of vital musicians, I’m also pretty hopeful that there’s a lot of both Moritz & Delay you’d enjoy. ‘Anima’, as mentioned, might be a rewarding starting point.

  11. I’ve seen MvOT live twice: first time (their first performance in amsterdam) was vague and felt like a concept art experiment; second time (Osaka) was great fun to listen and dance to (except pattern 2 which was just a great landscape)As you can see, the contrast was huge. The album is somewhere there in the middle, as if it didn’t quite work during the “vertical ascent” recording session. So I hope they’ll keep on doing live shows.

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