M-Tronic (B5), 2003
Moon_Phase is an odd and nervous album. On one hand, it’s an ambient marvel, full of an atmosphere that’s equal parts soothing and inspiring. On the other, it’s a mish-mash jigsaw of chattering, unfocused glitchery. And mixed into everything is a collection of curious vocal samples that seem to be ripped from 1950s television. These disparaging elements rarely gel, giving the album a disjointed and schizophrenic identity. Perhaps that is Michael Morton’s point, but listened to objectively, his first official release as Displacer on French label M-Tronic is a challenging and often awkward listen.
“Beta_Seed” opens the album with a very nice and moody synth line – something that is found on most every track on the album. The calm is soon broken (rather than enhanced) by random clicks and cuts that spatter across the music like random raindrops. Morton seemed enamored with glitch patterns; they’re also everywhere on Moon_Phase, and seem to disrupt the mood. (Hmmmm, perhaps that’s why the project is named Displacer after all?). I don’t mind glitch when it’s controlled and contained, but it’s seemingly random and incidental here, shifting headphone balance without warning or discernible pattern. It feels like audio trickery to me, rather than an experiment in rhythm. It’s noise for noise’s sake, bursting sporadically into the keyboard work in fits and starts, juxtaposing the calm keys with jittery anxiety while failing to gain momentum more often than not.
The rest of the album follows a similar template. There are often moments of stark beauty – the opening moments of “Wraith” and “Vorago” are wonderfully evocative – but the twitching glitches always make an appearance, instantly making everything edgy. The anxiety is heightened by the samples; on “Exponent,” we hear what appears to be dialogue from an interrogation: “We need information.” “I haven’t got any information!” “We think you have.” “Information about what?!?” And we’re left with that unease hanging in the air. Other samples speak of other stressful topics, such as the imbalance in one’s diet, the biblical apocalypse, or the draining of fossil fuels. It’s a special and not entirely attractive type of tension.
Moon_Phase is not a beat-based album, but on the few occasions when Morton moves past his stress-addled hesitancy, the results are welcome and notable. “Bits & Bytes,” the most structured track on the album, has a strong drum-&-bass percussive core coursing through it. At last, the percussion plays off the backing synths and melodies rather than struggling with them. The resulting cohesion feels like a safe island in a stormy ocean. Even the samples – “Well, what have we got here?”, “Deeeee-licious!” – are placed logically and sensibly. It’s a focused and complete track, and evolves strongly; characteristics that are largely absent elsewhere on the album. “Bits & Bytes” is powerful evidence that Morton has songwriting chops, but it’s as if he’s purposefully stifling it under the ever-present barrage of disconnected percussion that dominates Moon_Phase. “Lying in Wait,” bears further proof of Displacer’s potential, with a shuffling down-tempo beat, lovely minimal sequences, and airy chords that bring a sense of quiet anticipation rather than the manic energy defining the rest of the album.
Moon_Phase is too fractured to be ambient and too tentative to be electro. It is an album rife with uncertainty, regret, and “paralysis by analysis.” As a portrait of internalized pressure, it might be too successful. Therein, perhaps, may lie its charm, but the music isn’t nearly experimental enough to satisfy those seeking something on the fringes. Displacer has gone on to have a long career, and Morton’s songwriting has indeed improved, but taken on its own merit, Moon_Phase bears the marks of an artist who’s feeling his way…..very, very nervously.