Culture

Electronica goes old school on vinyl

BEIRUT: When Lebanese musician RadioKVM first began to experiment with electronic music, he had heard of neither Tom Jenkinson nor Richard David James – aka Squarepusher and Aphex Twin – pioneering composers in the form.

Otherwise known as Sary Moussa, RadioKVM – a name inspired by Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who once said that in order to start a revolution you need a Radio, a Kalashnikov, a Velo (bike) and a Montre (watch) – has been performing and recording since 2008.

His interest in electronic music goes back much further.

He took music lessons as a child, Moussa says, but soon began teaching himself to create multi-track recordings using a mixture of live and digital sound.

“I was just curious about how a multi-track recorder works,” he explains. “I would just hook my guitar up to the computer and try to record everything ... From there I was curious to know what a midi was and what a synthesizer was. This is how it happened. It was just curiosity ... then I got to listen to Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and people like that, the Warped people, and I found it fascinating.”

Having forged his own relationship with contemporary electronic music, performing live and contributing several tracks to compilation albums, as well as composing scores for theater and film, RadioKVM has just completed his debut solo album.

Produced and released by Ruptured, Ziad Nawfal’s independent label, “Issrar” (persistence) will be launched with a concert Wednesday at the Beirut Art Center.

The album consists of six tracks that take listeners on an ambient journey through abstract soundscapes, punctuated by looping, minimalistic beats, synth melodies and experimental percussion. The opening track in particular, the eerie “Navid,” is an abstract, slowly morphing number that eschews conventional rhythm and melody for something far more experimental.

Other tunes feature marginally more conventional beats and minimal melody, in particular the final two tracks.

“Hysteresis” pairs breakbeat-style drums with a fractured, slowly shifting melodic line. “Silvershine,” co-written and performed with electronic musician Jawad Nawfal, features original vocals by Maria Kassab, whose haunting, wordless warbling adds further complexity to the experimentation.

Unlike many electronic artists, RadioKVM says he chose not to sample existing tracks when working on “Issrar,” but created each track from scratch using a mixture of digitally-generated and recorded sounds. Starting from a basic loop, he’d build layers on top of it to create a lengthy track, before editing it down to the final product.

“That’s why it’s called ‘Issrar,’” the musician explains, “because ... I just let the machines run and then try and shape things to build something out of a simple loop. With electronic machines, with hardware or synthesizers, you can shape the sound to be something else, so from just a melody you can get percussion and from percussion you can get drum loops.

“When I first build the tracks, I end up with like 50 minutes of recording,” he adds, “and then I shape all this to have something more or less like a track ... While cutting those 40-plus minutes to make the six minutes, I add layers of sound ... This is where I use live recordings of ambient sound, of what’s inside my house or outside.”

The result of this experimentation may baffle those used to more conventional approaches to beat and melody, but the album’s relaxed, ambient pace may appeal to a wider public as well as hardcore electronica fans.

“Maybe people will be familiar with more rhythmic kinds of electronic music,” the musician speculates. “I don’t know if we can really call the album ‘melodic’ because I was trying to escape from everything that was melodic ...

“I was not trying to be Catholic about it, to do things how they’re ‘supposed’ to be done. It’s a chance I think I have because I have a label like Ruptured that is interested in releasing stuff like that, so I had this margin of maneuver.”

RadioKVM’s debut comes at a time when Lebanon’s electronic music scene is in the process of finding its feet, Nawfal explains, but that’s not all that makes the launch of “Issrar” interesting.

Available for digital download on iTunes and Amazon, the album will be marketed not on CD but vinyl, making Ruptured the first Lebanese label to produce and sell a record.

Vinyl can’t be printed in Lebanon, Nawfal explains, so labels are required to manufacture records abroad and ship them to Lebanon, a costly and potentially complicated endeavor. With “Issrar,” however, he decided to give it a try.

“The 10 CDs we released before this record were not selling very well,” he admits. “Every CD we’d come up with would sell even less than the one before ... [Then] our British distributor, Cargo Records, kept insisting [it was necessary] to release at least one vinyl, because it would be easier for them in the U.K. and in Europe to promote and sell a record by a Lebanese artist, as opposed to a CD.”

The records will be available at Wednesday’s launch and from a number of local outlets. Each comes with a code allowing the buyer to also download the album digitally.

Nawfal admits he has no idea whether there’s a market for vinyl in Lebanon, or not.

“What we’re doing now will basically let us know that,” he says. “It’s an experiment. We don’t know if this vinyl will sell well in England either, so we’re basically trying this out. We’ve printed a very small run, 300 in total: 150 in England and 150 for the Lebanese market ...

“Sometimes I imagine people having a go at the records Wednesday and buying them all, and other times I imagine selling five records. It could go either way.”

RadioKVM’s “Issrar” will be launched with a concert at the Beirut Art Center Oct. 15 at 8:30 p.m. “Issrar” is produced by Ruptured and Tunefork. For more information, please call 01 397 018

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2014, on page 16.

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