- In 1998, Mark Fell and Mat Steel founded snd, self-releasing an unadorned 12-inch that caught the attention of Mille Plateaux, a label that had become synonymous with the late '90s zeitgeist of austere, formalist, techno-fed electronic music. Over the next four years, snd released three albums to crossover acclaim, impressed audiences in galleries and warehouses, and became superstars of an unwieldy cloud of music collected under the "glitch" heading. And then snd got quiet. They still toured, but their recorded output was limited to a handful of compilation contributions and remixes.
Last year, though, snd self-released a limited vinyl triple-pack (to much fanfare) and then hitched their wagon to Raster-Noton (who previously put out material from their blir side-project). A product of their most focused working situation to date, Atavism features most of the hallmarks of the group's previous work, but purges and simplifies. Its sound will be familiar to fans, but this is a more ascetic and considerably more uncompromising snd.
More skeletal than 2002's Tender Love, there's little reliance on keyboards here, the emphasis placed squarely on metallic, staccato percussion, and the selection of sounds employed noticeably cooked down. The rhythms, too, have less range. Atavism's tracks distinguish themselves, but there's no mistaking that they're kin, each rhythm reminding of the last. Dismissing the routine familiarity of grid construction, Atavism hinges on pre-sequenced patterns generated to conform to a narrowly defined "snd palette," coming to life through the decisions and manipulations that followed. Instead of constraint, however, snd find this sort of methodology freeing: The group has sifted through its own legacy, identified the core elements and defined a snd language. Listening to the album, I'm reminded of Brian Eno's assertion that "the instruments and tools that endure... have limited options." Atavism considers what can be done within the parameters of "snd," much the way another recording might explore the possibilities of a particular piece of equipment or software.
Even with such a tight focus of elements, Atavism's 62 minutes never sound monotonous. In the second track, for example, a single ticker-tape beat runs through each of its layers, a pattern continuously duplicating itself. Meanwhile, gradual evolutions of each drum sound's timbre suggest a crooked hip-hop counterpart to Arnold Dreyblatt's take on minimalism. All told, it moves and generously surprises.
A record of accelerations and jerky halts, of anxious rhythms that stutter in and out of time, of tinny smacks and punchy data storms that shelter woozy drones and shimmering strums, this isn't music whose appreciation demands scrutiny and rumination. Atavism finds snd looser, more raw and more invigorated than it's ever been. More assured too. It may require another seven years to properly evaluate, but I'm inclined to say that this is the most representativeïand bestssnapshot to date of what snd has spent the last decade doing so well.