The minimal techno legend brings his first solo album in five years: four long tracks aimed squarely at the dancefloor, perforated by needle-tipped hi-hats and sharp, serrated claps.
Minimal techno doesn’t enjoy the critical acclaim or the popularity that it once did, but that hasn’t sent Ricardo Villalobos in search of greener pastures. Active since the mid-1990s, Villalobos broke through with 2003’s Alcachofa, but it was with 2004’s cryptic Thé Au Harem D’Archimède that he really hit upon his sound. Since then, across projects big and small, he has doggedly pursued the same twisted muse. He continues to tend the same spongy patch of ground that he always has to eke out squiggly forms part Dr. Seuss, part H.R. Giger—weird, biomorphic shapes that pop like suction cups and ripple like seaweed. His last few years’ worth of work has been fairly scattershot—mainly a mixed bag of collaborations and remixes, plus odd gambits like his 27-minute reworking of Oren Ambarchi’s Hubris. His last solo album, Dependent and Happy, was five years ago.
As his most extensive solo undertaking in years—four tracks, four sides of vinyl, nearly an hour’s total running time—Empirical House feels like his most substantial release in some time. It’s also a good read on his twin obsessions: otherworldly sound and unwavering groove. Quite unlike the wormy undulations of Safe in Harbour, a 2015 collaboration with his psychedelic fellow-traveler Max Loderbauer, these four tracks aim squarely at the dancefloor, perforated by needle-tipped hi-hats and sharp, serrated claps.
“Widodo,” formerly known to fans as “Rari Lim,” has been floating in sets for a few years now. Like previous hits “Fizheuer Zieheuer” and “Enfants (Chants),” it’s essentially an edit, pairing Villalobos’ crisp drum programming with a long strip of vibraphone solo presumably sampled from a jazz recording. Unlike most samples, this one doesn’t loop; it just floats behind the groove, like a reflection in a puddle. An almost inaudible hint of speech is left running deep in the mix, which makes for a mildly disorienting experience: If you’re listening on your computer, you may find yourself checking for open browser tabs. What makes it a potentially divisive track is the jazzy walking bassline that hurtles through the first two-thirds of the song. It doesn’t quite work; its eighth-note cadence is too straight, its notes too unvarying. It feels like something you'd encounter blaring from an animatronic jazz band at Disneyland.
“Bakasecc” is better. For those who prefer Villalobos when he goes furthest off-piste, this will be the highlight. Save for a muted kick, there are no drums here at all, just a blurry shower of plucked, kalimba-like sounds held together by clicks and pops and squishy burbles. It is a fine encapsulation of a kind of repetitive music that never actually repeats—that is, music in which every bar is as unique as a snowflake, yet when you zoom out, comes to seem hypnotically undifferentiated. It is a mountain stream set to a 4/4 beat.
“Subpad” and “Empirical House,” which both put their focus on sharp, snapping grooves, initially feel more straightforward, but there are strange energies at work. In the former, bright, choppy chords faintly echo “808 the Bassqueen,” a crowd-pleasing classic from 1999, but the real action is way beneath the surface, where faint synthesizer pads, stray piano notes, clinking cutlery, and another low speaking voice pool like water in a leaky basement. Again, you go searching for that renegade browser tab; you might even wonder if Villalobos recorded the whole thing with a YouTube window open on his computer and just left it that way. The title track, meanwhile, pairs a restless groove, bouncy as a teenaged boy’s knee, with limpid swirls of Rhodes keyboard; the background is aswarm with hot breath, gravelly hiccups, and indistinct muttering.
Villalobos’ music is druggy, but these two tracks are really druggy. Setting up an irreconcilable tension between foreground and background, they feel like two realities colliding, or maybe one reality being peeled into two parallel strips, trapping listeners in the dissonance like flies in stickum. Both tracks are upwards of 12 minutes, and, from a purely structural point of view, they don’t really do anything in all that time, but that’s the point. Villalobos doesn’t edit or arrange because he doesn’t have to. Like so much of his work, each of these is merely a fragment of a much longer continuum.