Tarmvred – Subfusc

Ad Noiseam (No 4), 2001

It’s been said that everyone is an author or a musician to a certain extent.  To look at it another way, it’s said that everyone has a great story or song inside them, and it’s just a matter of finding it and letting it out.  One has only to consult the list of one-hit wonders for evidence.

In 2001, Ad Noiseam (high on my list for best-named labels) released Subfusc, the strangely named debut album from the also-strangely named band Tarmvred.  Subfusc hit the electro underground with all the subtlety of an anti-personnel bomb, and word quickly spread about a new kid on the scene.  The combination of styles contained on Subfusc seemed to hint at the arrival of a touted talent, and with such a celebrated debut, great things were expected.  However, Tarmvred never released another full album, and what did appear didn’t live up to the wondrously baffling kaleidoscopic precedent set with Subfusc.  This is not to say that the album is a fluke.  Quite the contrary – it deserves every ounce of its status, and years later, there’s still never been an album quite like it.

The mad scientist behind Tarmvred is Jonas Johanssen, a retro-futurist who attacks his machines with all the reckless glee of a kid playing in the mud, unconcerned with rules or consequence.  Admittedly, Subfusc is a mess, but it manages to be a beautiful one.  It shifts styles without warning or reason, moving from thumping electro to drum-and-bass to ambient and back again, from the fringes of experimentation to the straightforward without consideration or apology.  This spastic structure is, ultimately, the album’s greatest strength, and its biggest shortcoming.  And yet, for all its scatterbrained explosiveness, this is an album, defined by its lack of definition, if nothing else.  When one considers Tarmvred’s subsequent erratic releases, it supports the theory that everything fell into place for Johanssen during the recording of Subfusc, which remains, to date, his most wonderful and most fractured gift to the world.

Subfusc has seven tracks, each named only by its length;  the first track is titled 1105.39 (just over eleven minutes in length.  Yes, eleven minutes.  All but one of the tracks are over nine minutes) .  The track begins with ambient-style whirs and buzzes, which drift about harmlessly and whimsically, until a devastating percussive break slowly fades in at the four-minute mark.  Johanssen’s lab is now open for business.  What happens next is a dizzing, exhilarating display of tempo changes, breaks, and headlong inertia through a beautiful and broken landscape Johanssen seems to make up as he goes along (who knows, maybe he did).   A buzzing old-school bass-line soon follows, complemented perfectly by the thudding drums.  And then, just because he can, Johanssen throws in a couple of delightfully old-school sampled melodies taken from 1980s hardware.  A great track just became something else entirely.  Track One is, in my humble opinion, one of the most powerful, visceral, and downright satisfying electro anthems ever recorded; in my book, it’s right up there with classics like Converter’s “Denogginizer” and Imminent Starvation’s “Tentack One.”

The rest of Subfusc doesn’t quite maintain the established momentum (how could it?).  Johanssen throws everything into the grinder and churns out magnificence without a care for genre or convention.  It’s the kind of music that shouldn’t work, but does.  Subfusc is not the work of a suppressed or tortured soul who has at last found his outlet; no, this is a work of joy, of appreciation, of wide-eyed wonder, of experimenting for the sake of experimenting.  I can easily picture Johanssen saying “Let’s see if THIS works!  And I’ll leave it in there even if it doesn’t!”  Given the length of the tracks, and their complexity and schizophrenic nature, Subfusc is not an easy listen, and it is very challenging to experience in its entirety.  It does tend to wander, and the sheer scope of everything can easily overwhelm, but it’s never Johanssen’s intention to drown or oppress the listener.  Subfusc is Johanssen sharing his hyperactive vision, and it’s up to us to process it.  There are passages and instances of brilliance hidden throughout Subfusc – be prepared to catch each as they zip past, because another is sure to replace it when you least expect it.  (Track Five has, of all things, female vocals thrown in.)

Track Seven is a remix by the legendary Converter, whose unexpected shifting template Tarmvred shares in many respects.  I don’t normally care for remixes on albums, as I’m keen on the big picture, but Converter’s work is noteworthy because it shows what Tarmvred might sound like if given focus and direction.  Scott Sturgis adds his trademark distortion and weight, but is careful to maintain the core of the original; he pushes the track ever so slightly towards the ominous without allowing it to redefine Johanssen’s impulsive, attractive brand of insanity.

Even in a genre as niche as experimental electro, the breakneck, uneven rollercoaster of Subfusc is not for everyone.  Its manic, unpredictable identity can be trying and taxing; it is certainly a demanding album.  However, those with patience and/or an adventurous ear may very likely find Tarmvred’s buzzsaw playground a rewarding place to visit.

In any case, you have GOT to hear Track One.

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