A lean, hardworking techno album.
Karen Gwyer’s Rembo is a lean, hardworking techno album that succeeds not through sterling sound design but through how its tracks shift and move. Her sound palette is spartan and untreated, and though her penchant for swooning chords suggests roots in the stoned dub techno of Chain Reaction, she rejects sound effects for plainly rendered, musical elements. The thrill Rembo imparts comes from how its tracks progress, shift and deepen, how a perfectly timed musical cue can take a track somewhere unexpected.
There are only six or seven elements at most working together on any given track, meaning when a new one is introduced, our focus is heightened and the cue works more dramatically than it might in a denser mix. “The Workers Are on Strike” starts in discoland, all slapping snares and greasy sequencers, until Gwyer fills in the spaces between the beats with gargantuan, song-subducting chords and the temperature drops. A few minutes later, a silly little synth worm comes in and we’re back in goofy party territory. These feints are common, and few tracks go where we expect them to.
“Why Does Your Father Look so Nervous?” pulls the same trick, and when we think we’re used to how these tracks work, “He’s Been Teaching Me How to Drive” (the titles are structured in a delightful call-and-response pattern) deepens the album by steadfastly refusing to go anywhere. It’s a classic mid-album techno abyss that lets the listener get lost for a little while, and without it the 39-minute record might be too fleet.
Gwyer’s interest in how individual sounds work together gives the album an almost rock-band feel. These tracks could be performed by a small ensemble, each member with their own MIDI controller, and it wouldn’t be terribly hard to replicate most of the sounds. In that, it resembles Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe, James Stinson’s late-career masterpiece of Detroit techno, which, in its refusal to deviate from a strict palate of five or six sounds, fostered an intimate feeling almost akin to an MTV Unplugged session.
But Rembo is so middle-of-the-road in its construction—yet so exciting in its execution—that reference points tend to slip away, except for those associations which come to mind in its individual sounds. The chords suggest the trebly wisps around which Vainqueur builds his tracks, but the ergonomic vibe of Rembo couldn’t be further from that producer’s foggy fantasies. And there’s a bass sound on “The Workers Are on Strike” that DJ Koze often uses, but Gwyer might find Koze’s baroque approach to techno appallingly garish, while Koze might listen to Rembo and wonder why there aren’t more string quartets.
This is Gwyer’s first album since 2013’s Needs Continuum, recorded while she was pregnant with her first child. It’s hard to believe Rembo is the work of the same woman: that album was as meandering and miasmatic as Rembo is succinct and sharp. Having less time to actually make music means more time for the artist to conceptualize what she is going to do before committing it to wax—and clearly Gwyer’s had enough time to plan out the musical mots juste for her best work to date.