- Even though club music and free improvisation are polar opposites, Ricardo Villalobos's stated goal is to approach them with the same spirit. Where one uses predictability to bring people together, the other develops without the audience or artists knowing where it's headed. Empirical House skews to the former. Its four tracks have been played for some time by the label heads of [a:rpia:r] and other DJs in Villalobos's orbit. But the chaotic influence of his work with Max Loderbauer and Ambiq is evident in elements of the album, most obviously in the complex webs of cause and effect born from big patches on modular synthesisers.
Villalobos brings both worlds into contact by using the club context as a stage for multilayered scenes that function at different levels of attention. If you zoom in on Empirical House, the fertile environments behind the bass drums have the uncharted flow of free music. Like improvisation, the logic connecting one sound to another feels simultaneously casual and hyperspecific. Yet it isn't music that demands attention. You could imagine the whole thing drifting by quite nicely while sat with friends somewhere away from the dance floor. And if you're front left, it's trippy and groovy as hell.
"Widodo" sees Villalobos setting the scene like a Fellini film, evoking luxury and fantasy with a dash of surrealism. You're dropped in a bubbling crowd perched on a terrace looking over the Mediterranean, sipping spritzes and wearing shades. It's probably late summer and the sun is setting. A smooth jazz combo soundtracks the gathering with walking double bass, triangle, vibraphone and xylophone vamping contentedly. Snatches of crooning and chatter drift. But every so often, keening tones, perhaps from an old organ, give a hint of disquiet into an otherwise carefree scene. As is ever the case in Villalobos's work, it sounds relaxed—almost thrown together—yet deathly precise and considered.
The rest of Empirical House is less jubilant, instead taking a more ambiguous and ultimately more compelling route. If "Bakasecc" conjures a visual analogy, it's the humid woodlands evoked by Acido or SUED records. Endless permutations of rhythm and texture dominate. Teasing out variety from a strictly confined set of parameters is the name of the game. The track is driven by pitched percussion, sounding somewhere between a marimba and a thumb piano, punctuated by the ever-present ream of modular bursts and pops. For such a synthetic sound, the overall feel is organic.
"Subpad," the album's most versatile track, doesn't call to mind a specific scene. It's still loaded with barely-there details, seemingly designed to mess with the few dancers who catch them. The central motif is a filtered synth line that seems to be constantly duplicating itself. Apart from the occasional but audacious kick drum roll, we're in endless flow. A quiet voice and some lazy piano appear in the background, only to become caught up in the mess of modulation. But it all happens at a subconscious distance. Our attention is firmly fixed on the entry of hi-hats and the bassline.
The title track goes along at a fair clip, but we're gliding rather than pushing forward. This undercurrent of drift is elaborated upon beautifully in the second-third of the track. A man exhales and a synth tone droops like a wilting flower. Serene pads enter steadily, seemingly built from the voices of angels. The mood becomes bittersweet—we realise the man's breath is sitting somewhere between pain, weariness and exultation. But from a comfortable distance, it's just a soothing house track.
04. Empirical House