Album Review: Christoph de Babalon - Exquisite Angst
One could make a strong case for saying that Christoph de Babalon, the German producer of aggressive electronic music, is having a pretty good 2018—and doing so by simply reissuing material that is upwards of 25 years old.
All it took, really, is a resounding co-sign from Pitchfork, giving the 20th anniversary reissue of his full-length opus If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It, an 8.4 and the honor of ‘Best New Reissue’ when it was repressed and remastered at the start of this year—the gentle reminder that Thom Yorke once championed the record as ‘the most menacing thing’ he owned, certainly also helped.
de Babalon will open 2019 with a new, four-song collection, Hectic Shakes, but he closes out 2018 with a bit of a victory lap in the form of Exquisite Anger, a nine song compilation that gathers together tracks recorded between 1993 and 1998—many of which have been available digitally through his Haunted Past anthology series, but are now issued on vinyl for the first time, including the unrelenting, percussive “Are You Talking to Me?,” the song that originally introduced de Babalon’s music to Thom Yorke.
Released via the Australian label A Colourful Storm, the ‘odds and ends’ nature of Exquisite Angst gives it a less cohesive feeling when compared to If You’re Into It, but that nature doesn’t detract from how unnerving, volatile, and impressive de Babalon’s compositions are capable of being when he pushes things to the absolute breaking point.
Across Exquisite Angst’s nine selections, I stop short of saying that the pacing is uneven, or that it is ‘fronloaded’ with the best of this previously uncollected material—after opening with a short, ominous drone, “Gaseous Invertebrate,” de Babalon, more or less, never really relents how confrontational and abrasive his production work, though the severity of that abrasion and confrontation varies from track to track.
However, the one piece that seems drastically out of place among the rest is the collection’s final track—“Valediction.” It’s not even that it’s a bad track—it’s just slightly less successful compared to the others, and it ends the album on a bit of an anticlimactic, perplexing note. Maybe it’s because the synthesizers sound so dated, or maybe it’s because after just how punishing and dissonant some of de Bablon’s music can be, something that slinks along almost playfully—perhaps with a subtle sense of humor, even, is just a rather stark, unexpected contrast.
Following the aforementioned “Gaseous Invertebrate,” de Babalon really wastes no time pushing the listener in to the frenetic, violent environment he almost effortlessly creates. “Kirchengänger,” the second track in the collection, opens with a low, foreboding tone that doubles as a bit of an alarm, or a siren, before de Babalon’s trademark ‘breakcore’ hyperactive drum beats kick in—and that is, more or less, the conceit of the first side of Exquisite Angst, as he keeps that energy going into the classic ‘drum and bass’ frenetics, eerie video tape samples, and layered synthesizer drones on “Realistic Riot Ritual Routine,” the jittery start and stop percussives of “Leave Me in The Autumn,” and then the collection’s centerpiece—“Are You Talking to Me?”
Based around bouncing, wonky sounding synthesizers, the thing that makes “Are You Talking to Me?” one of de Babalon’s most impressive cuts out of his entire body of work is his control and execution of the break beat drum samples, as well as how they are produced—over 20 years later, the crisp, popping sound of the snare hit still packs just as hard of a punch as they are unrelentingly rolled out throughout the course of the song.
Exquisite Angst’s second half begins with the atmospheric drone “Alpenglühen”—not as unsettling as “Opium,” the long form piece that opens up If You’re Into It, but for nearly six minutes, de Bablon brings a cavalcade of spooky, tense sounds up to a simmer, but never lets them boil over.
In comparison to the first half of the collection, its second side is paced a little unevenly—“Marble Stairs” is more or less cut from the same frenetic, dizzying ‘break core’ cloth as many of the tracks on the first half, though the synthesizers on it sound slightly more dated, and prior to arriving at the already mentioned, out of place closing track, “Valediction,” we’re given the most confrontational and aggressive selection of the bunch, the ironically titled “Meditate.”
The compositions of Christoph de Babalon are not for the faint of heart—no matter if they are pulse pounding break beats, assaulting you at 100 miles per hour, or unsettling, otherworldly drones that stretch on for an unnerving amount of time. “Meditate” is a collision of both of those worlds—it’s built slowly with a swirling mix of uneasy synthesizer tones before effected vocal samples and crashing noises come tumbling in—at about two minutes in, it shuffles together into a slithering rhythm that wouldn’t be so out of place on an old Nine Inch Nails record. That gives way to an utter cacophony of skittering beats, layers upon layers of noise and dissonance, as well as cavernous timpani drums—all of it heavily distorted, becoming a bit of a sensory overload.
If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It borders on being a timeless sounding product of its era—it took the aesthetic de Babalon had been working on, and through the aggressive ‘break core’ movement coming out of Europe in the early to mid 1990s thanks to Atari Teenage Riot and Digital Hardcore Recordings, fostered it into something almost impossible to replicate. The pieces collected on Exquisite Angst can be looked at as a precursor to the sound de Babalon was building—there are moments where he isn’t quite there, but there are moments that are jaw dropping and still hold up entirely, 25 years after the fact.
It’s a difficult listen, and Christoph de Bablon makes difficult music, but some of this is unlike anything I’ve heard before, and completely worthy of your time.