Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
The music Markus Popp makes as Oval is in part about the act of listening. His tracks—“experimental” to be sure, but otherwise difficult to classify in terms of genre—are defined by how they focus attention, zooming in to assess the most minute detail of a sample one moment and zooming out to showcase the latticework construction of the whole the next. Popp forces the listener to think about how they process sonic information, but his work also happens to be inviting no matter what intellectual engagement one brings to it. The two newest Oval releases, the Eksploio EP and the album Scis, are the product of the ideas that have defined the project all along, but Popp continues to add new wrinkles.
To understand how we got here, it helps to take a step back. Oval’s recorded output can be divided into several distinct phases. The project’s earliest work was decidedly ambient but with a discomfiting edge, as soothing hums and digital clicks and buzzes interrupted drones. Starting around the time of 1999’s Szenariodisk EP, Popp added noise and distortion, and the music became aggressive and overwhelming while keeping elements of conventional melodic beauty. After a long break from Oval in the 2000’s, Popp returned in 2010 with O, which found him inhabiting a world of clean tones that referenced recognizable instruments—even as his compositional structures remained wild and unpredictable. Eksploio and Scis are part of a more recent phase that finds Oval in a dreamier realm; Popp builds pieces from small fragments that he arranges for maximum emotional engagement, creating a kind of kaleidoscope of color in sound.
Eksploio has an almost classical bearing, with bits of piano and orchestral sounds that lend drama. One can sense the hand of a composer; the random element, always present with Oval, sits more in the background. “Eksploio” has string-like synth parts, reminiscent of ‘90s chill rooms, and a rush of low-end energy that is recognizably percussive. It’s unusually musical for Oval. “Blissous” has a chattering series of taps sourced from the highest few keys on the piano, giving the twitchy and beat-heavy electronics a wooden earthiness. And “Brockaat” is among the most tuneful tracks Popp has created, with a simple two-note melodic refrain anchoring the piece and foregrounding glimmering trills of xylophone.
If Eksploio is disarmingly pretty, Scis’s defining characteristics are rhythm and noise. That push and pull of opposing forces, where the most delicate bits of melody—a sampled guitar, a shard of piano, a small fragment of voice—compete for space with a deep bass rumble that’s hard to pry apart, is the essence of the album. The opening “Twirror” is packed with distorted drones and squeaks that function almost like power chords, while a heavy quake of electronic percussion adds tension underneath. “Pushhh” features a chaotic series of drum hits driving the beat under noisy synths, but also has a traditional backbeat, something of a rarity in the Oval world; “Robussy” is another track with a hypnotically throbbing bottom octave. Beats are often out front on Scis, but Popp’s drum programming isn’t tied to any particular musical idiom. Though the music is tethered to a steady pulse, percussion, for Popp, is ultimately another tool for density and space. If this pair of records is an early glimpse at the next phase of Oval’s sound, it’s one with a lot of promise, as both channel his complicated methods into music of rare emotional force.