As has been pointed out by countless record critics before me, it’s hard to see where the “intelligent” part of “intelligent dance music” comes into the picture. Much like jazz (the other notorious form of “smart people’s music“), the suggestion is that if you like IDM it’s because you’re a staggering genius of superlative taste and critical pedigree, and if you don’t it’s because you’re just too dumb to get it. To my mind, Displacer’s Michael Morton bucks the whole IDM problem somewhat, because the sort of technoid, industrial-rooted IDM he makes abandons impenetrable polyrhythms and complex granular programming to focus on emotion and texture. It’s not smart music (which is not to suggest that it’s dumb either), it’s thoughtful music, and that distinction is abundantly clear on his new release Foundation, his first for Hymen after a few multi-album tours of duty on M-Tronic and Tympanik. Like all his records it speaks to a desire to render feeling from an inherently cold and mechanical form of music, and like those records again, does so by virtue of its delicate touch and eye towards the experience it provides the listener.
All of that brings us to one of the most important things about Displacer’s work, that the focus is always on a finespun, transparent engagement with the audience. We certainly can’t know what Morton’s process was when recording a song like “The Waiting Place”, but the way in which its rich bassy tones give rise to cloudy synths that eventually resolve into string-like pads are too careful to be coincidental, but not so showy as to spoil the immersion. Similarly, the rhythmic shift mid-album signaled by the straight kick-snare pattern on “Firebug” is executed subtly enough that it’s almost imperceptible unless you’re actively listening for it; by the time you notice the album’s emphasis on tempo has changed up you’ll be halfway through the dubby “Distress Call” and on your way towards the slow-build climax of “Warbound”. The route also herds you through the terse and rubbery “Outland” and the *ahem* ghostly whispers of “Ghosts pt. 2”, but the pace is fairly unrushed and the scenery involving.
Perhaps an inevitable result of the emphasis on keeping things understated is that Foundation never reaches out to grab the ear of the listener. Unlike say, Beefcake (a band who’s influence on much of Displacer’s catalogue is palpable), there’s never any attempt to snap you out of the trance it lulls you into with a blast of sound or sudden left turn. Even “Spare Parts”‘ flirtations with putting a chattery rhythm out in front of the slabs of composed sound have a reserved quality to them, and when things go full-on ambient with the final song “Leviathan” the tenor remains the same as everything that preceded it. That’s a contextual issue more than anything else, and if we measure the success of an album by how interesting it is (which I do, with actual listenability coming a fairly close second) rather than how many times it made us jump out of our seats via some unexpected twist, Foundation does well. It’s a good record by a great talent, and one that underscores the value of attentiveness and warmth as a creative ends.