- Like many impressive artists, TJ Hertz seems to rarely be impressed with himself. Take, for instance, his first records. "All nine minutes and twenty-five seconds of Objekt's 'CLK Recovery' are thrilling," we wrote in our blurb for the A-side of Hertz's second EP, one of RA's top tracks of 2011. "Objekt's sound design is awesome to behold," Philip Sherburne said in his review of "Cactus," a track he called "as malevolently hungry as the carnivorous house plant in Little Shop Of Horrors." Hertz, meanwhile, was less enthused. "I just felt like I was clutching at straws," he recently told Angus Finlayson. "I guess in retrospect I was trying to do it too much by the numbers, which has never really suited me that well."
This is a little hard to accept—Hertz has never sounded unsure as an artist. But listening to Flatland, you start to see where he's coming from. Hertz's debut album is stylistically unleashed in a way that makes his early records sound conservative. Like the curls of synthetic material on its cover, it's tangled and glossy, abstract but also weirdly tactile. On one hand it's so rich with detail that it can be hard to wrap your head around, but it's also generous to the listener, delivering at every turn.
Sound design plays the role of a lead instrument on Flatland. Though incredibly vivid, the sonic palette is thoroughly artificial—aside from a single drum roll on "Dogma," nothing here recalls any instrument in the material world (even most of the drums seem barely suited to that term). As you listen, the mind's eye might conjure up a white laboratory, devoid of human life but whirring with activity—motors spinning, machines pivoting, screens flickering. Hearing that metronomic bleep on "One Fell Swoop," it's hard not to picture a red light blinking on a console.
The album's other masterstroke is its structure, which is totally unconventional but follows an intuitive logic that keeps you locked in. It starts with a bang ("Agnes Revenge") ends with a sigh ("Cataracts") and zig-zags wildly in the middle. Some tempos soar well above 140 BPM; "Dogma" chugs monolithically at 91. Individual tracks follow strange, seemingly improvised paths, but the album as a whole occasionally circles back on itself: that metronomic bleep from "One Fell Swoop" returns in "First Witness," "Agnes Revenge" and "Agnes Apparatus" share the sonic boom that opens the record (which also appears on last year's "Agnes Demise"), and various other bits of flotsam reappear throughout, always a little different from before.
As heady as all that may sound, Flatland is not a cerebral attempt to subvert the norm. It's bold, maybe even avant-garde, but from beginning to end it's raucous, barnstorming, chair-dancing fun. Hertz is not exactly a techno producer, but neither is he an experimental artist—it seems his ultimate goal is always, if not club utility, then a thrilling visceral reaction, often one that will make you want to move. He's not rejecting convention to be clever, he's doing it because the alternative feels unnatural to him. Hertz says he had trouble making straight techno. What he made instead is absolutely killer.
01. Agnes Revenge
02. One Fell Swoop
05. Agnes Apparatus
07. First Witness
08. Interlude (Whodunnit?)
09. Second Witness
10. One Stitch Follows Another