What the hell is this? That may be a common response from listeners getting to know Playthroughs. Keith Fullerton Whitman has already recorded several albums of electronics under his surname Hrvatski and other monikers, but for his solo debut he returns to his roots for a set of electronically processed guitar noise. Sound appealing? Fennesz often pops up in discussions of this album, and his Endless Summer from 2001 is also an excellent example of heavily edited feedback, but Playthroughs is closer in theme to a composition that blurred the line between classical minimalism and pop, Brian Eno’s Ambient 1:Music For Airports.
What comes to mind when considering the term “ambient” as applied to music? Pure Moods? Chilled Ibiza? Long before Enya and Moby threatened their hostile takeover, there was Eno. With the four album Ambient series, Eno proposed a harmonic sound which one could either listen to attentively or ignore as background noise. No percussion, no abrupt key changes, no abrasive guitars. This was not only music for airports, but also for office spaces, spas and meditation centers — intellectual, but pleasantly subtle. We will not blame Eno for all the new-age wankery that he may or may not have inspired, because Ambient 1 is an untouchably pristene album. Many dismissed the work as cold and lifeless, which is the very same argument that detractors will make against Whitman.
Guitar is the only instrument used on this record, but you wouldn’t guess it. Never is there a plucked string or chord, only multiple tracks of feedback shifted into key. The trick is that all these tones together sound like one huge note hanging in the air for ten minutes, with small harmonies coming and going randomly. Beautiful.
In a way, Whitman is executing an idea common to “drone” pop music like Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Sigur Ros, which is to use as few notes as possible. But he does not even acknowledge the related rock-drama crap. These tracks lack all pretense. The concept could seem high and mighty, but instead it feels refreshingly modest.
Playthroughs doesn’t really contain any “songs,” but each of the five sections seem slightly removed from one another. The first two tracks sound like separate sustained notes of noise. By “fib01a,” the ambience begins to break into electronic bubbles at regular intervals. The notes shift more clearly, with different harmonies emerging and getting louder but always hovering around the one base tone. The computer effects added to the feedback on track four, “ACGTR SVP,” carry a huge reverb, almost resembling a single organ chord rather than a collage of guitar-based noise. The sounds wander more as the album progresses, and by “modena,”the final track, the key is minor and the guitar notes come in as percussive clicks, much like the sound of a skipping record.
The album might not sound like a lot of fun, and there is no question that Whitman is an academic. But this is incredible music, arranged electronically with attention to each imperceptible detail, yet bearing the unmistakable “soul” of its composer. Deceptively simple, it makes one wonder exactly what constitutes a pop record (or a classical record, for that matter) and there will be lots of confusion as someone tries to pinpoint a genre for this lovely noise. Minimalism? Ambient electronica? Space rock? Free noise? None of the above, thank you. This is a unique bird. And it is my favorite album of 2002.