Album Review: Pablo's Eye - Dark Matter
I discovered Pablo’s Eye the same way a number of people who were not aware of idiosyncratic electronic music coming out of Belgium during the 1990s probably did—thanks to a glowing review of Bardo for Pablo on Pitchfork.
The ‘fork gave Bardo—the second volume in a proposed series of three anthologies—an 8.2 and the coveted banner of ‘Best New Reissue.’ I take just about anything Pitchfork raves about with a grain of salt, but from the instant I started listening to “Amb 8,” the sprawling, hypnotic 11-minute opening track from Bardo for Pablo, I understood why such high praises were bestowed upon it.
This was last summer, when Bardo for Pablo was released via Belgium-based label Stroom, and I spent the rest of the summer, and into the fall, going back and revisiting the first anthology in the Stroom series, Spring Break—a release I had erroneously slept on, as well as tracking down what copies I was able to from the original Pablo’s Eye output—the lengthy 1995 collection You Love Chinese Food was the easiest to find (still sealed) via Discogs; the 1998 album, All She Wants Grow Blue was a little harder to acquire.
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The sound of Pablo’s Eye is hard to describe, or pigeonhole into one genre, so describing it in a broad sense as ‘electronic’ is maybe not the best way to frame it, but it’s probably the easiest.
2019, coincidentally, marks the 30th year of Pablo’s Eye’s loose existence as what can only be called a collective—a ‘temporary atmosphere’ is the expression used on its website. Formed in Brussels by Axel Libeert, Pablo’s Eye is, more or less a revolving cast of players; and the project, most active throughout the 1990s, was relatively dormant in its recorded output throughout the 2000s until 2017, when Ziggy Devriendt began curating the anthology series for his Stroom label.
The fascinating thing about the Pablo’s Eye canon is that it all boasts a cohesive sound—little trademarks that make it ‘distinctly Pablo,’ but there are also stark contrasts. At times, it can be almost whimsical in its nature; other times, intoxicating and hypnotic; then, there are moments that are intensely ominous in tone.
Devriendt’s anthologies, while not each entirely exclusive to a specific tone, did try their best to focus on one aspect, or another, of the varying Pablo’s Eye aesthetic—Spring Break was geared more towards the whimsical and easier to access material, while Bardo for Pablo, a sparse six track collection, was curated with a more ‘tribal,’ rhythmic, and percussion heavy tone in mind.
And for the most part, the final anthology in the Stroom series, Dark Matter, as the title suggests, pulls from the more ominous and unsettling works from Pablo’s Eye.
Gathering tracks from both of the aforementioned full lengths, it also includes songs collected from 1992’s Devotions and the group’s final full-length, 1999’s Realismo, both of which are incredibly rare in their compact disc forms.
Structurally speaking, Dark Matter is the longest anthology in the Stroom series—running 36 minutes, it spans 12 individual tracks; this may not seem like a very long collection, or all that many pieces of music, but comparatively it is: Bardo for Pablo included six tracks, and Spring Break contained eight.
Dark Matter really wastes no time in setting its tone. It opens with the eerie synths and haunting strings of “Worship and Passion,” one of the few tracks that features…not so much ‘lyrics,’ but a short poem, if you will, read stoically by Marie Mandi, who is credited as the ‘voice’ of Pablo’s Eye. This gives way to the oscillating tension created by “More Hesitant Than Before”—a piece that is unrelenting in the increasing sense of swirling dread and paranoia it seemingly effortlessly creates.
The more time I’ve spent immersing myself in the works of Pablo’s Eye that I’ve had access to, one of the things I’ve found is that while there are quite drastic changes in tonality throughout a single album, things remain ‘distinctly Pablo’ because there are strong lines of connectivity running throughou. If you think something sounds almost too familiar—like you’re sure you’ve heard it before—it’s because you probably have.
“Different Observers,” the expansive, five-minute meditation that pushes and pulls the listener through different and intense percussive rhythms, is at times structured around the same slithering and pulsating drum machine beat used on the fantastic All She Wants Grow Blue track “Sermon on The Radio.”
Split evenly across the A and B sides to the vinyl, the remaining pieces included on the album’s first half continue the unnerving tone set from the beginning, but in a bit of juxtaposition, things switch directions as the second half begins.
“L.A. Desert,” pulled from All She Wants Grow Blue, is a brief, slinking, and whimsical detour, built around disembodied and manipulated vocal samples alongside layers of MIDI keyboard sounds, and a near-robotic recitation of text written by Richard Skinner, by Marie Mandi—a strange, dream-like narrative of, as the title implies, the surreal feeling of being in the desert.
“L.A. Desert” is a bit of an anomaly on the collection—there is some MIDI work later on within the second side, on the skittering “Out of The Corner of Her Eye,” but “L.A. Desert” proves to be the least gloomy sounding selection included; the side’s tone shifts, yet again, with the jittery, cavernous dub-style echo of the very brief “She Told Him the News,” which gives way to the noir-esque “Tamil Nadu.”
The highlights of Dark Matter’s second side, and perhaps of the collection as a whole, are the ones that are constructed to be the most intensive and evocative—“A Pagan Use,” pulled from You Love Chinese Food, is a dizzying, inexorable ride through a relatively simple drum machine rhythm that has been heavily effected to reverberate through you as you listen—topped off with otherworldly atmospherics rippling throughout in order to make it a piece of music that transcends being a ‘song’ or a ‘track’ off of an album, and something that is more of an experience, especially when heard through headphones.
Dark Matter ends with “Loisaida Dub.” As implied by its title, the unending, dub-style echo and manipulation of the song’s instrumentation run throughout almost the entire track, with sounds bouncing and spiraling off of one another, creating a startling and cacophonic ending to the collection.
Much like the two Stroom collections before it, Dark Matter is a relatively brief affair—too brief, if you ask me—adhering to the idea that there can be too much of a good thing. Like Spring Break and Bardo for Pablo, Dark Matter arrives with its seemingly unending supply of imagination, stirs up all kinds of visceral emotional responses. As a single album, it’s a fascinating, entrancing record from beginning to end; and as the final part in the anthology series, it’s a wondrous and fitting conclusion, showcasing yet another facet of this collective’s ever evolving sound.