Published Sep 05, 2019The Ostgut Ton label, and its associated monolith in Berghain, are central pillars amongst the tenets of modern electronic music. Sam Barker, who has been active in the past as Voltek but more recently under his surname, has long been associated with the musical output of the crew. Only somewhat recently, however, has he actually released music on the associated label. The results on last year's Debiasing were exceptional. Now, on his debut, Utility, Barker's vision is exacted with conviction and sublime beauty.
"We all dance our lives away to the tune of the sovereign pleasure-pain axis" reads the opening statement in a press release. It's an excerpt from trans-humanist philosopher David Pearce's The Hedonistic Imperative. Pearce's ideas are a thread that runs through the fabric of Utility; many are reflected in the album as track titles, giving weight to their contents.
"Paradise Engineering" is one of such example — four minutes of ambient, euphoric optimism, in cadence with classic trance music, is delivered expertly and sincerely. The difference between what is accomplished here and with trance music is the absence of naiveté, setting the stage flawlessly. "Posmean" harkens back to Debiasing, but this time with the added emotional perspective arcing across Utility. It's a sound that he's perfected, and one entirely his own.
A central tenet of Pearce's image of trans-humanism is the advancement of the current state of humanity with the use of technology. Barker's "Experience Machines" is his homage to these ideas, with distinctly electronic-sounding synthesis cantering rhythmically in his vision. On "Gradients of Bliss" (another David Pearce idea), the artist delivers a mesmeric performance of synthesis and arrangement totally devoid of tension — at least, in a negative sense. The summative experience is meditative in the highest order — a "replacement of suffering," as Pearce conceptually describes it.
"Hedonic Treadmill" is another exemplar of synthetic pulsar-esque Barker arpeggiation, resolving at its conclusion as the namesake would suggest. Propulsive yet pensive, "Models of Wellbeing" is the last major statement of emotive bliss before the denouement, replete with sighing pads and crooning synthesisers all overlaying the signature palpitation underneath. It should be mentioned that, up until this point the album, there has been no composition with a defined kick drum as in much dance-floor oriented music. So, it would be true to say that Utility isn't strictly a dance-floor record in a traditional sense, but this is a trans-humanist ode after all.
On the title track, "Utility," Barker delivers his crown jewel. Shuddering and rhythmic, yet incredibly moving, it's less abstract than much of what was on his first Ostgut release, but it's also more relatable and dance-ably rhythmic. He says himself, "After Debiasing it occurred to me that my musical decisions were often unintentionally utilitarian, following an instinct to maximise pleasure in one way or another. It's sort of unfashionable to admit, but by removing elements that have strong genre associations, this became a natural consequence."
The final two compositions offer downtempo reprieve from the proceedings. "Wireheading," referring to the sci-fi idea of targeting pleasure centres of the brain with electrodes, is calm and composed, flush with consonant ambience. "Die-Hards of the Darwinian Order" is the only track with a kick drum on Utility, and it could be suggested that its title is a tongue-in-cheek critique of those still needing to hang on to traditional dance music archetypes. Slow and filled with metallic creaking, it has by far the longest runtime on the record. Ending things uncertainly, it perhaps posits more questions than yields answers.
The most remarkable thing about Utility is how well Sam Barker's ideas translate without the need of abstraction. This isn't experimental in the Raster-Noton sense, nor is it as credulously euphoric as electronica of an Iberian persuasion, but rather it is the basis electronic music in its purest form. Devoid of ulterior intention or consequence, the album speaks its message of trans-humanistic optimism without the need for intricate wordplay or lyricism. Above all else, Utility is an excellent album that exudes sincerity without the need for words at all. (Ostgut Ton)