It’s been some time since I dropped myself down into the middle of a new environment. Strange confluences of sounds, floating and thumping and twisting magic. There are instances when a piece of music has the effect of walking into an impossible room, where fantastic things are possible. More convincing than any film or video game, music – left to its own devices – can submerge us in vast, spectacular beauty. Hive Plot demonstrates just as much.
Let’s back up. By “environments,” I’m not necessarily referring to “ambient” or “atmospheric” music. Pop music can create lush sonic landscapes, like Peter Gabriel’s Up did. And while I can jam to Pete Namlook all day, eventually I prefer something with more propulsion: Orbital, for instance. For me, Orbital’s Insides was a life-changing, perspective-shifting discovery.
Orbital’s previous and subsequent albums are each wonderful and distinct in their own right, but none have maintained quite the same hold on me; Insides was special. Ever since my first listen as a younger man, I’ve been wondering why. I think it’s because of the particular aesthetic they played with in that singular instant in their discography – a fluid merging of synthetic and real-world sounds, with an effect both cinematic and deeply visceral.
Insides was full of mystery and exotic newness in way that I found comparable to Dogon’s The Sirius Expedition, The Future Sounds of London’s Dead Cities, and this record: One Sock/Placebo’s Hive Plot. While the sonic similarities are greatly outnumbered by the dissimilarities, Hive Plot’s capacity for luscious, alien gorgeousness (anchored to its own odd and unique human-generated character) makes it worthy of the comparison to Insides. They are, from top-to-bottom, different records with entirely differing sonic messages – they just happen to be in a very special class of record together.
The album begins with an old record spinning. A music box gently hammers out a melody, modulated by the introduction of a synth pattern. The pattern begins to pick up steam, gliding a smooth rush into booming kick drums. Spurning the trappings of trap music, or the pedantic step-by-step of dub step, “Adcazer” gets big and beautiful without “dropping the beat.” There’s no freak-out; that’s not the intended energy of the song. It’s an introduction: a cool morning breeze through the window, bottles clinking against one another as they hang in a chime. And then, as you look out the window, your heart begins to swell and pound at the astonishing view of an ancient, golden city and all the life that it contains.
“Associationville” switches gears abruptly – but One Sock/Placebo immediately demonstrate their ability show you – and hook you on – something new and immediately engulfing without skipping a beat. The song begins with a rather conventional, modern EDM sonic premise: massive, thudding kick – answered by glass-crush distorted claps – atop some foreboding synth pad – fractured by hype-inducing samples of god-knows-what, including a lovely – albeit an extremely dated – synth arpeggio cascading downward. Random, but cool – it fine-tunes the mood just so. The next moment, you can feel that undulating dub step-y bass work its way in before you even hear it. You just know it’s coming.
But what happens directly after is actually quite compelling: a skittering, filter gate chops up a ghostly synth pad as it soars overhead like a massive storm cloud, casting a heavy darkness over the continuing beat… and then everything slowly subsides into a reflective, low-tone organ. A bass note lets out a single, wobbly descent. Temperate melodic loops supplant the trudging kick and clap at the start of the song. A simple, insistent and gentle kick thump – joined by an equally placid bass loop – propels us along down the next corridor of the song. It’s magical.
Just as a rainstorm leaves a dripping calm in its wake: the world has changed. For those few, sun-kissed moments in the newly rain-soaked world… everything sparkles. Gamelan and island bells drift left and right, a distant metal grinder screams from the next block down. The beat picks up again, those crunchy claps no longer so fearsome. The song ends on a slow fade, with delicate “synth choir” stabs lining the exit. A truly wonderful experience of a song.
“Chasing in cars” follows directly after, a gradual building of layers that eventually explodes with orgiastic polyrhythms in the shape of a song. Plucked strings, bells – an almost hyper-naturalism. I see the time-lapse footage of a flower; the germination of a seed, the piercing of the earth, the wild and twisting dance toward the sky, the sprouting of the extremities, the blossoming explosion, pollen whisked away on the fine hairs of a bee’s leg, and the flower fades.
The introduction of actual, human female vocals is a welcome change to the established sound palette of the record, but it’s used sparingly with a great deal of imagination. The voice wavers and floats into view, emerging from darkness. Indistinct utterances, pieces of a muted melody. Increasingly, her voice is scattered this way and that, intermittent echoes that last half a second. You hardly notice as the song begins to incorporate clicks and rolling, stuttering kicks. Before you know it, the song begins to disintegrate, layer by layer.
“Scx” creeps out from underneath a heavy low-pass filter into full, clockwork splendor – pitting disjointed loops against one another over heavy stop-and-go drums. And then, like a massive wind-up toy, it begins to slow and fade. To its conclusion.
“Gutted” is somehow approachable in a conventional way, but also discombobulating with its windy bass lines and tricky, deceptive drumbeat. I think the sounds are mostly straight-forward, which is disarming for the listener after an exotic assault like “Scx,” but the constant switching-up of established patterns is where One Sock/Placebo have fun with the listener. At each stage in the game, Hive Plot undermines expectations, subverts convention, and retains beauty and musical dignity all the while. Even the gradual, resonant sweep of noise during this song is pleasing and exciting – a simple element adding a real sense of velocity to the song.
On the heels of such minimal experiments in polyrhythm, “Subconcious Waffles” brings back some of the fleshy, silken, raw textures employed earlier in the record, with mallet instruments colliding side-to-side, looped backwards, spread evenly over strong, upbeat drums. This song is somewhat reminiscent of some of Jega’s work, in that certain songs really explore all sides to one kind of sound through a number of prismatic perspectives – in this case, a soft mallet-struck bell tone – only merely assisted by the hints of sitar or subtle synth patterns that are sprinkled here and there. The meat of the melody is devoted to one tone; one tone drives the song forward over the rumbles, thumps, and taps.
The seventh track, “Naurra / The Dream Interlocution,” begins with a gorgeous amalgamation of synth pads and textures, some shimmering crystalline and others distorted and rough-edged. The ongoing motif of bells is present here, holding up the melody while the bass-line descends. Echoing, shifting fragments of drums scatter across the stereo field, broken and fluttering against a black sky. Noise and texture play an important role in the arch of the song, pushing the intensity along with the intermittent use of fractured ride cymbals and the unstable drum pattern (popping massively under the enormous weight of the compression used.
Hive Plot ends with “Iasoka,” which begins in a way that makes me think of what the Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi might do with a Korg Electribe. The sound evolves, of course, expanding beyond its modest beginning and widening with a ping here, an echoing “thing” there. Then drops the beat – quite the way you might expect. Its as if the record was waiting this entire time to deploy that faux-dub step move, a sudden peak in energy emptying out onto a sluggish, anvil-smashing beat. The rolling loops and emerging patterns sweeten the deal, but I’m almost disappointed. I sort of wanted the record to go completely sideways and hand my one more confounding mystery before the end. Instead we have a seemingly familiar – and decidedly safe-sounding – conclusion.
While some artists claim to work under the auspices of magic, Hive Plot manages to bring that magic to show-and-tell. Granted, you have to pay attention to what the music is doing, otherwise tracks like “Associantville” can appear to bombard you and then abruptly abandon its bombardment in a strange, back-door way that seems strange and dishonest. Follow the interplay of disparate rhythms, the power of sheer noise to drive a song’s energy and sometimes color its melody – this record is a learning machine, built from components both future and past to inform the present time-traveller as to the true nature and beauty of this universe we call sound.