Music

Lee Gamble Hallucinates One of the Year’s Best Albums

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Lee Gamble’s Mnestic Pressure is a compilation of electronic music that doesn’t exist. That’s one way to hear Gamble’s mastery of existing styles: the wrapped drums of hardcore, the airy bits of jungle that aren’t beats, the bits of jungle that are, the hummingbird flap of Aphex Twin melodies. Gamble is a producer from Birmingham, England, who came up on experimental composers, continental theory, and the ferocious health of dance music in Nineties Britain. He has described the tracks on Mnestic Pressure as the “decoded offspring” of two of his previous albums, Diversions 1994–1996 (2012) and Koch (2014). It is bigger than that, and more necessary. Mnestic Pressure blooms as much as it plays.

In the two years before he made Mnestic Pressure, Gamble left producing alone and mostly played DJ sets. This is relevant, but not because the album is a mix of blends and clever selections. Mnestic Pressure is more like the output of a DJ who came off the road after a year, ditched all of his records, and holed up in a studio to rebuild, from scratch, every song he could remember. Instead of a party starter, what you get is a palimpsest of all the music on top of all the other music, riven by gaps and false starts.

“A music that’s in your brain, a hallucination of music.” That’s another Gamble description of his work, from a note on 2012’s Dutch Tvashar Plumes album. Gamble has flirted with this state since his first release, the 2006 EP, 80mm O!I!O (Part 1), which had no drums and no time signatures, just lightly organized dark noise, all of it unruly enough to keep it off the dance floor. Yet that’s where Gamble ended up, while developing a core of material that had little to do with people moving. There is only one track on Mnestic Pressure with drums that stretch the length of the whole song, and it’s “Ghost,” an almost straight-faced jungle track that comes second to last. Plenty of older Gamble tunes were built to make somebody yell “banger!” and wobble about. Those are not here. Gamble’s very simple trick here, one that creates a very unsimple scroll of sensations, is to put drums and timekeeping so far down on his list of priorities that they often just sink out of sight.

This creates a graceful mystery that winds through Mnestic Pressure. Something hollow, maybe real, maybe not, is struck. It vibrates. Pitches shift, and the tail of a sound lingers, but there is no distinct rhythm beyond the tremble of a digital effect. The first four songs make a point of their own interruptions, generating an inquisitive motion. “This? Is this what you listen to? Why?” The short opener, “Inta Centre,” begins with a thick synth cloud that gives onto a drumbeat. The beat barely makes it ten seconds before a bigger cloud takes over, and that’s it for time signatures. In these two minutes, Gamble blends a dozen or so layers in and around his overtones. You get plenty of detail, and the momentum of generalized time, but none of the divisions that a beat provides. “Istian” gives us a beat, except it’s unwell. The hi-hats turn off sometimes, as do the kick and snare. The sandstorm is bigger than the vehicle again, and though there is some progress, the track has to keep wiping off its own goggles.

The programming in just these two tracks has the same sentient, galvanic feel, as if the music were actually being played live and only imitating the grids of software. This is one key to Mnestic Pressure feeling both like a summary of electronic music and somewhat post-electronic. There is little here that slaps or charges or bounces in an automatic way. This is an album of rounded things, fluttering and dropping out. Nobody set some program up to run and then walked away.

By the time you get to the fifth track, “Swerva,” things seem to be building to a breaking point — except they’re not. There’s a brassy, fractured synth line that could be the center of a storming tune, if “Swerva” wanted to be that. Instead, you get a tour of another haunted dance hall, guiding you through gaps and feeling through the decay to no specific end beyond it all being gorgeous. There is a palette over the course of this — the wide furry grays of the chords and the dark reds of broken lights that keep cutting through and then dying.  

“Mnestic pressure” means, literally, the pressure associated with memories. By email, Gamble talked about the phrase: “I’m not trying to make an ‘illustration’ of the title with audio. It’s more related to making an album in these times — these times feel like mnestic pressure to me, as opposed to tranquil, ambient, controlled, etc.” And that pressure leads us to look at how things become mnestic. The beat doesn’t have to go on and it doesn’t need to tell us twice. Just a snatch of that turnaround, a brief stretch of Amen breaks, a glimpse of that cowbell crushed under the echo, and it all comes rushing back.

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