Subjective speculations aside, you’d have to concede that Villalobos is an expert at confounding ears and fans, regardless of his intentions. This time he's confounding us with a fifteen-track mix CD made up of his own tracks, co-mixed by Dorian Paic, for Fabric Records. But if we say ‘his new Fabric mix CD is comprised of fifteen tracks’ you assume you know both what ‘mix CD’ and ‘track’ are, how they relate to each other, how one category is the building blocks of the other, right? You know what to expect, what each is ‘meant to’ say, do and be? Do you? But this is the artist who released 'Fizbeast', a ‘track’ that radically questioned any firm notion you might have about the length, movement and function of a ‘piece’ of ‘dance music’. Exhibit B, Fabric 36: a ‘DJ mix’ comprised entirely of an artist’s own work…co-mixed by someone else. So, I’ll ask again: what is a ‘DJ mix CD’? What is a ‘track’? And, moreover, what is a 'Fabric mix'?
Villalobos is justly famous for making tracks in a different sense: musical movements that are eccentric yet devastatingly effective pattern breakers, ones that take the set in unforeseen directions while keeping the floor (and the force) with you. They do this because they rupture through the patterns in the formulaic tracks you mix them into and out of – ‘Spitzpercussion’, ‘808 the Bassqueen’ and the ‘C& T Experience’ as Gucci (with Tobi Neumann) haven’t left my box in the past four years, because they weave wonders through every other track they meet, just as they often subvert them and make them seem pale and bland in comparison. Even the least standardised of his non-standard recent tracks, like the epic mix of Shackleton’s ‘Blood on my Hands’ works its devastating best through the midst of conventional techno – Radioslave’s use of the track on his ‘Misch Masch’ compilation from earlier this year is but one high-impact example.
But do his tracks mix well with each other? This is the central gambit and novelty of Fabric 36, and so the measure of its success is whether it ‘works’… but works to do what? And for whom?
Listening back across Villalobos’ back catalogue, the salient features have remained constant – or if they have changed, then the variation seems seasonal, like a deciduous tree through the span of the year. Ricardo has always used highly processed electronic microrhythms whose timbral value is constantly changing: accreted leaves of tone and texture, full of microscopic variation, constantly piling up and breaking down over time. Because there are so many timbres, this means that no four bars are identical; but because he uses filters and effects that affect the texture more than the rhythm (unlike Sasu Ripatti, for example), any given track stays deep in its swaying, mesmerising groove over several minutes, grounded to the eternal pulse of house. Then there’s the use of ‘live’ percussion samples, taken from ‘real’ drums. These he leaves in their naked skins, mostly manipulating them only by cut, paste and loop, which makes them sit high and raw in the mix, refreshing ears floored by hours of synth drum similarity. Then there are those haunting, haunted melodic themes that are always drifting in, around the nth minute. These are the ‘catharsis’ tracks, where the sombre tones overwhelm the party – the impossible sadness of 'Dexter', the inundation of the groove by the rain and melody in his remix of 'Auch', or the ascent of the vocal harmonies in the ‘Cellphone’s Dead’ remix.
The ‘rules of the Ricky V drama’ are re-applied here, true to form. Is it formulaic, or just the singular creative blueprint of an artist unlike any other working in the idiom? Those expecting cheap thrills, easy answers or gratuitous melodic themes can look elsewhere: the mix starts with a very spare groove that gradually builds and mutates through occasional elemental addition and constant timbral shift. The slow morphing groove assemblage claps and filters its way past the twentieth minute before introducing any major melodic themes – ‘4 Wheel Drive’ is the first cab off this rank, followed by ‘Andruic & Japan’, which occupies a central place in the mix, both in terms of position and duration. It’s twelve minutes of one woman’s brain dribble, a mong-a-thon of outrageous vocalisations set among the rhythm sticks of an entropic Wadaiko orchestra. You’ll either love it, or find it overlong and irritating. I think it works. It also totally derails the groove that Villalobos has spent the past half an hour building, but this is not accidental – the point where it drops away into the soundbath of ‘Organic Tranceplant’ is the plateau that the mix leads you through – it’s not the ‘point’ (a pleateau is in every way pointless, and happily so) but the magical hiatus before the downhill run. The big ‘fun slide’ is ‘Primer Encuentro Latino Americano’, which uses a sampled singing, cheering crowd and massive flanges thar slide into sub-woofing heaven with the kick, which bursts your eardums as the pitch descends into the frequency floor before fading into the gentle swoon of ‘Choruspel Zundung’.
So does it work? And how like a modernist to feel the need to emplot, ‘sum up’ and judge ‘a work of art’? Ah, if I could be free, of the (salad) spinner in me… As a mix, ‘Fabric 36’ is perhaps a little too cohesive – there’s not enough of the aleatory or surprising here, both strong suits of his intuitive approach to live DJing. But this is not a live mix. As an album there is none of the pathos of the ‘big, sad’ tracks that marked Alcachofa as a classic for many – but this is neither the intention nor the effect of this work. As an artistic statement however, Fabric 36 is a very subtle pleasure, one that allows Villalobos to gently fuck with your expectations while doing what he’s always done, unbidden. Then again, this is an artist who’s expected to do the unexpected, while the self-appointed techno cognoscenti are (likewise) expected to praise him for it. But with delicacy and charming skill, this ‘mix’, and most of the ‘tracks’ it contains, seem to duck those fast-flung bogus salad bowls too. I guess that makes it the authentic work of an artist, if not an authentic work of art – and definitely worth a spin.