Hands Productions (D097), 2006
I’m all for contemplative and inspirational experiences where music is concerned, but sometimes you just need to blow the roof off and get things charged up. There’s a great deal of electronic music built around pure energy, with straightforward 4/4 dancefloor beat structures as the means and the end, with little else to disrupt the flow, but the list of electronic dance albums that also succeed at engaging the mind isn’t quite as robust.
Presented as evidence: Baikonur, the second album by German trio S.K.E.T. It’s an album that falls somewhere in between the established genres of electronic body music (EBM), intelligent dance music (IDM), and powernoise. I applaud crossover attempts like this, because they allow the artists to push the envelope and experiment, and once in a while, everything falls into place beautifully.
Baikonur is also a concept album (more applause) celebrating the groundbreaking forays into space by the Soviet Union. The music (and artwork) seems to embrace the pioneering spirit of the first cosmonauts, channeling the inspiration into the music; Baikonur is the middle of three albums S.K.E.T. has released to date on Germany’s Hands Productions, but neither of the others click with such satisfaction.
After a relatively uneventful opener, “Sputnikshock,” Baikonur announces its true identity with the sublime “Luna (Isolator 4 Edit)”, a careening journey bristling with rocket-propelled impetus, centered around a driving beat and a distorted percussive pattern that spits from the speakers with machine-gun rapidity. The track harnesses the energy of EBM, the complexity of IDM, and the rawness of powernoise to intoxicating effect; it strains like a greyhound at the starting blocks, all lean explosive potential. And yet, the music contains startling versatility: you can dance to it, you can head-nod to it, and you can analyze its dizzying layered sequences. It engages the blood, the heart, and the mind.
The next three tracks pay homage to Yuri Gagarin: titled “Vostok 1”, “2”, and “3”, each with the subtitle “Gagarins Flight,” and showcase S.K.E.T.’s sense of melody and ambiance, along with more precisely controlled sequences of noise. Every single sound has its place within the mechanism; I’ve rarely heard electro with such a strong sense of rhythm and such a mastery of fast-paced layered sequencing.
Baikonur continues building momentum, and hits its full stride beginning with track 7, “Proton-K,” with an ominous synth line flanked by a chopped vocal sample and driving percussive passages. “Zond,” perhaps the album’s most energetic track, features off-kilter rhythms that never follow the same groove for long that gradually add layers of complexity, finishing off with truly wonderful keyboards. “Progress” shadows the darkness of “Proton-K” while adding high-pitched whistles and meandering chords, while the beat chugs and glistens. S.K.E.T. cools the jets a bit with the almost downtempo “Meteor 2-5”, built around two repeating vocal samples and a slowed thumping beat, as distorted incidentals sizzle and flare.
There are seventeen tracks in total here, which is a lot for an album as tightly focused as Baikonur. It’s expected that it loses itself in places – which it does following such a strong core – but the inspiration returns for the two final tracks. “Fobos” buzzes and pulses at stratospheric heights, and “Soljaris” uses breaks in the sequences of noise to catch its breath as the synths haul it beyond gravity’s reach one final time.
Baikour is confident, kinetic, relentless, and precise; there’s not a tentative moment from start to finish. Everything is moving forward, often at a breakneck pace. As such, it can be a little exhausting and frazzling to listen to entirely in one sitting, as your brain can struggle to keep up with its hectic level of activity. It’s understandable that S.K.E.T. couldn’t quite maintain the same insane level of ingenuity and energy through all seventeen tracks, but the fact that Baikonur doesn’t dissolve into frenetic and shapeless chaos is a testament to the technical skill and unifying concepts with which it was produced. Heavy without being weighty, dancing along the edge of darkness, Baikonur is a brilliant exercise in experimental rhythm and synthetic momentum. Onward and upward, comrades!