Kattoo – Megrim

Hymen Records (Y747), 2005

A kind-faced elderly woman ponders and ruminates on a black background.  She wears a string of white pearls, earrings, and a ring with a black dress; she could be going to the opera or a funeral.  Wherever her destination, she wears an expression of peaceful rumination.

This is the photography adorning Megrim, the second album by Kattoo.  Volker Kahl, also part of the drum-and-bass outfit Beefcake, dazzles with his versatility and musical talent, all in a detached and surreal manner that leaves much to the listener’s imagination.  The twenty tracks of Megrim are untitled; I’m unsure who or what Megrim is, but I’ve always considered it a pet name for the depicted grandmotherly figure.  Perhaps the album is a tribute to her memories, or her dreams.  Whatever Kahl’s inspirations may be, he’s created an album that touches on cinematic soundscapes, trip-hop, ambient, field recordings, IDM, and just about everything in between.  Megrim is a challenging listen, but Kahl makes sure that the disparate parts orbit near a common center.

The main thread on Megrim is musical.  I’m not a musician by any means, nor have I studied musical theory or structure in any depth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kahl has.  Several pieces on Megrim feature themes that are similar, if not repeated – I’m talking themes of notes and chords here rather than aesthetic or conceptual – and it’s these connecting bits of music that bring the album together.  You’ll hear vocal samples that sound like some Scandinavian tongue to my untrained ear, commercials, various cries and yells, a Japanese voice that’s been pitch-shifted into pixie-quality, flowing water, creaking doors, cracking ice, storms, birds…..all of it scattered throughout the album while Kahl’s synthetic strings and horns blare dramatically and pluck wistfully.

Megrim is electronic at its foundation, so you’ll also hear various slow-paced IDM and trip-hop beats and classic bass synths as the tracks flow from one to another.  None of the tracks on Megrim are particularly long; it’s got twenty tracks, but the majority run between two and three minutes.  Sometimes there’s a separating break, sometimes not.  Megrim is clearly influenced by modern soundtracks, but it’s markedly more complex than most.  “4” is particularly grand and epic in scope, with dramatic horns and quick strings shifting into a piano melody backed by IDM bass and an offbeat drum track, before vocal samples appear and the grandness returns.  Middle Eastern elements make a sudden appearance on “15,” via a tribal beat and a lamenting vocal sample.  It’s moments like this where Megrim is most effective, but it doesn’t remain completely consistent.

With such a scattered approach, it’s not surprising that Megrim wanders aimlessly in places, its disparate pieces struggling to fit.  “16” struggles to integrate its sharp break-heavy glitchy percussion with the orchestral themes and piano; it’s an experiment that doesn’t work particularly well.  The pitched strings and IDM sequencing of “18” also fails to merge completely, even more so when the techno stabs appear.  For an album this experimental and ambitious, such missteps are more easily forgiven, but sometimes it appears Kahl is trying a bit too hard to shove bits together when they’re at odds with each other.

And yet, when Megrim works, it glows with an odd light that’s really quite unique.  The ghostly reverbed howls and hip-hop drums/voice breaks of “6” somehow move in harmony, and the strings add a layer that changes the entire identity.  “2” is wonderfully ambient, with wandering keys, choirs, and the sounds of the sea all flowing as one; it’s a shame the track isn’t even three minutes long.  Likewise for “3”, with its sparse string plucks and looped bass drone intro that moves into full synthetic orchestral territory until light percussion holds it together; it’s here where Kahl’s musical theme is first revealed.

If there’s ever been a soundtrack for a nonexistent film, it’s Megrim.  It’s a bit too adventurous for its own good, and it’s not entirely consistent, but for an adventure in electronic experimentation that moves around a realized central core, Kattoo’s second release is quirked-out fuel for the imagination.

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