Modern synthesizers only emerged in the 1960s. Technological changes have been constant, as modular behemoths gave way to compact digital boxes or software packages. We should hesitate in calling this progress. Treating each new thing as an improvement means leaving technologies behind, the surface of their capabilities barely scratched. Thankfully, many musicians have continued to value tangible knobs and dials over mouse-clicks. Or they’ve heard something in circuitry and modulators that cannot be captured in ones and zeroes. Unlike the fetishization of cassette tape, here is a feature of the analogue revival we can all get behind.
Jakob Rehlinger is a Canadian guitarist and experimentalist. On the six tracks of Powehi, he uses the Behringer Model D to great effect. This is a contemporary, affordable analogue synth, which replicates the Minimoog. Fittingly, the album itself pays homage to legends like Klaus Schulze or Manuel Göttsching. We begin with a gradual, ambient build-up, artificial water droplets announcing an oncoming flood. As swathes of synth melodies morph in and out of sustained drones, structure comes from the distant drumming of an advancing force. At higher frequencies, staccato tones mimic the string section of a robot orchestra.
The shorter pieces of the album use the synth in numerous, time-tested ways. Space-age plinks and plonks meet the whine of an expertly played theremin. Brooding, layered ambience becomes a noise floor for the signals of uninvented instruments. Like the 1970s and ’80s pioneers before him, Rehlinger balances the reproduction of organic sounds against the design of self-consciously artificial ones. The longest track, “Unending Creation”, takes a meandering tour around isolated stars pinging into life against a dark, humming backdrop. Is this what the start of our universe sounded like? Or is retro cyberspace announcing its belated autonomy?
Since 2005, Rehlinger has worked non-stop under many aliases. He has around twenty albums as Babel, a dozen as Heavy Moon, slightly less as Moonwood (which morphed into a full band), and handfuls of releases as Spume and King Pong Dub System. These projects range from psych rock to shoegaze, from processed guitar to dub. Most releases are on CDr or cassette from the artist’s own Arachnidiscs label. It’s difficult to imagine Rehlinger maintaining quality control across such a staggering output. But after being enchanted by Powehi, I look forward to finding out.
Carl Oesterhelt is another musician on a genre-bending journey. However, he embarked some decades earlier. Writing and performing with a range of Munich bands since the 1980s, Oesterhelt has switched between drums, keyboards, and synthesizers. He straddles genres such as pop, new wave, jazz, and disco. Since the turn of the century, Oesterhelt has built up a solo catalogue under the name Carlo Fashion, as well as recording in free jazz and avant-garde duos with Johannes Enders and Hans-Joachim Irmler.
Oesterhelt’s Eleven Pieces for Synthesizer work with a variety of analogue synths, and the results channel a spirit of 1970s experimentation. On the opening track, “La chapelle de Francis Lai”, a restful church organ is visited by a pulsating mechanical presence, before the two whirr off into the stratosphere. The French composer’s soft-focus film scores may be Oesterhelt’s reference point. But the dominant sound here (and across the album) is one of crisply controlled synthetic tones and rhythmic sequencing.
Since he rubs shoulders with kosmische royalty, Oesterhelt has a less awed reverence for the music of the past. He mixes styles, recreating Cybotron electro on “Simple Theme”, edging toward minimal techno on “Makonde Pattern”. My personal favourite, “Trinidad Pattern”, mechanizes Caribbean rhythms into hypnotic percussion. He explored some similar territory in a jazz setting, as Carlo Fashion, on 2017’s Rebirth and Delusion.
While Rehlinger’s album has a nostalgic warmness, Oesterhelt’s is predominantly cold. On tracks like “Verblassende Erinnerung” (“Fading Memory”), the clean signal eventually decays into grainy noise. But the bulk of the album is clinical, in the most satisfying and haunting way. Rehlinger’s “Homeward Voyage” has us drifting out in the darkness, with the fuzzy promise of humanity on the horizon. By contrast, Oesterhelt’s “Synchronisation” is like a dial-up modem phoning home: a strange, electronic conference call where humans are mere eavesdroppers. Whatever the balance of analogue and digital, or human and mechanical, its likely that the history of synthesized music has barely begun. (Samuel Rogers)