Negative Format – Cipher Method

Sector 9 Studios (S9S003), 2003

For all its inertia and energy, Cipher Method is remarkably subdued.  The fourth album from Alex Matheu’s Negative Format project, Cipher Method blends traditional EBM with trance and techno elements, but it’s not a breakneck ride through dizzying synthetic landscapes.  Matheu doesn’t overload the listener with an abundance of layered programming, relying on strong songwriting and a keen sense of rhythm to buoy the five-plus-minute compositions.  If you were to combine Massiv in Mensch’s wondrous synthetic rhythms with Individual Totem’s high-powered sequencing, the result might sound something like Cipher Method, but with some key differences.

First is the mood.  Matheu has injected Cipher Method with a relaxed, almost down-tempo feel.  While you can certainly dance to it, and dance well, Cipher Method isn’t brimming with dancefloor killers; this is an album perhaps better suited for home listening, where one is able to absorb and appreciate the sequencing and programming driving the music.  This isn’t a turbo-charged affair, but a cruising one.

The lyrical theme is also atypical for the genre, examining the reliance on technology with a cynical edge; we’ve allowed ourselves to have our decisions made for us, but as it’s our choice, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We’re losing something as our use of technology increases; a bold statement from someone who couldn’t have released this album without technology.  This isn’t a new concept for EBM, but it’s an intriguing paradox.  Matheu doesn’t beat us over the head with dogmatic proclamations, but gives us something to think about while our bodies respond to the rhythms.  His lyrics and warped, filtered delivery are clearly secondary to the music, and are often mixed low as an extra layer of rhythm.  Some tracks, such as “Encryption,” have minimal lyrical content (“block out the filtered information/mix in the daydream that our lives are broken” is the extent) rather than the traditional verse-verse-chorus structure.  It’s a smart decision, as the underplayed vocals don’t impede the momentum of the trance-inspired foundation.

Yes, trance.  It’s considered a dirty word by many fans of EBM, but not to fear; Cipher Method is certainly not a trance album, but an album that takes trance’s theory and applies it to EBM.  The trance manifests itself in the smooth, straightforward beats that never stutter or oscillate, keeping time with a pleasing regularity rather than becoming monotonous.  Matheu wraps the 4/4 beats with glittering sequences and near-soothing keyboards with just enough of a techno-influenced tint to make rivetheads curl their lip a tad, not to mention the warm ambient-style synths contained in tracks such as “Cipher” and “Schema.”  Cipher Method isn’t angry or brooding, but contemplative and it soars and dives through the digital ether.  Matheu breaks up the formula just enough, with the drum-and-bass stylings of “Algorythm,” the anthemic pop of “Static,” and the near-ambient instrumental “Packet Filter,” not to mention paying tribute to classic EBM with the harsher vocals and increased aggression of “Downfall (Atmosphere).”

There are plenty of highlights here – the mid-track shift of “Schema,” the particularly wonderful sequencing of “Vertex,” the tightly focused “Transfer” – but Cipher Method is an album best appreciated as a complete work.  It doesn’t drag or feel repetitive during its long, 65+ minute running time, and despite the similar themes both musically and lyrically, there’s enough variety here to keep one’s interest.  If nothing else, it’s worth marveling at how Matheu blends styles seamlessly and keeps one’s rhythmical expectations guessing and one’s pulse pumping with subtle energy.  Cipher Method is the kind of wonderfully effortless experience that sounds both familiar and completely new.  While the brashness of its extroverted, shock-centered contemporaries have faded with time, Negative Format’s quietly pulsating masterpiece of streamlined technophobia is as relevant and effective as ever.

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