No Type began life in 1998, and continues to this day, as an MP3 label. If the concept seems a bit ludicrous to you — after all, don’t MP3s render the whole record label structure redundant — think of them more as arbiters of quality, or defenders of a defiantly experimental aesthetic. For No Type there are no rules, no “official” sound, no set expectations — everything about them defies convention and strives ardently against categorization and quantification. Therefore, while it’s initially alarming to see No Type embrace the brick-and-mortar world of CDs, those reservations last only a few seconds; The Freest of Radicals, the stellar debut of their “tactile” line, compiles two and a half hours of the most wildly wonderful, defiantly peculiar sounds (music seems too limited a word) you’ll hear this year — compositions that not only discover and explore the union between sonic experimentation and listening pleasure, but cavort gleefully therein.
Broadly speaking, The Freest of Radicals is all about the electronic manipulation of sound. We’re not talking about anything as simple as keyboards and synthesizers, or even the sort of functional, mechanical/algorhythmic processes that yield the blips and bleeps of IDM. The source material on The Freest of Radicals is everything from the barely audible pop and crackle of PCM data to voice samples and video game music — all of it subjected to a variety of data-invasive procedures. Sounds are chopped, hacked, dissected, disintegrated, corroded, smothered, stretched, compressed, torn, fused, mutated and devolved by every conceivable means, creating everything from organic squelching sounds and dog-audible whines to pulsating bass tone arrays, needle-scratch collages and the sound of aluminum siding falling off of a house. For every piece that sounds like the artist left the mic live while tinkering with a hand-made synthesizer (ja_dijiste’s Laquinta), there’s an electro-fried dub odyssey like Tomas Jirku’s I Think I’m In Love, the feverishly brooding jazz-rock of Kannovanik’s creepy Tell Me About Death, Mommy or a crunchy, melodic epic like Alphacat’s exquisite Waveporn. To encounter pieces as fundamentally different as Julie Rousse’s gamelan-hacking Une à six idées improvisées and V.V.’s Moment 3 on the same CD is to receive a joyous (albeit ear-abrading) reminder of the near-infinite variety of sounds available to adventurous listeners. It may hurt like hell, but it’s liberating.
If you’re an old hand at the whole concept of non-musical music — that is, if you’ve sampled the less accessible works of Merzbow, JLIAT or the Ambiances Magnétiques folks — go ahead and dive into The Freest of Radicals with the “Bait” disc, which includes a higher proportion of the compilation’s “difficult” material. It’s here that you’ll find pieces like Magali Babin’s Petit jardin, which anchors its acousmatic explorations (pebbles being scraped up and dropped in a metal pan, perhaps) with a lingering, resonant three-note bass “melody” that pierces the relative silence like a foghorn. You’ll also encounter Camp’s nervously vibrant, high-pitched Oeee (which I’d swear includes a greeting-card version of the Wedding March), the sub-aural dub of Claudia Bonarelli’s They Use Us Back and the trash-compactor conflagration of Napalm Jazz’s kitchen-sink noise epic De la viande bio. The peculiar pleasure of the “Bait” disc comes from finding music where no music had seemed to exist; repeat spins, particularly with the use of headphones, reveal layers of hidden melody — rather like the aural equivalent of the moment when, while watching a subtitled film, you cease to be aware that you’re reading the subtitles. There is great beauty in even the most abrasive of Radicals’ compositions, and its discovery is a profound pleasure.
If you’re looking for something a little more musical at the outset, sample (no pun intended) the “Switch” disc first. After Kalx’s Soundtest puts your speakers through their paces, you’ll slip easily into the pseudo-orchestral “smart techno” of Œuf Korrect’s Hooked on Phone Ethics; the song’s chirping “vocal” synth might even evoke a satisfied smile. Sluts on Tape’s compellingly clever The Last and Finest of Peter Pans would turn Mike Paradinas green with envy, channeling thick layers of morose sci-fi synth into domestic-futuristic melodies, garlanded with white noise and overdriven digital burble-drone. There are glitches, clicks, pops and digital audio artefacts galore, all of them pressed into service to forcibly expand the frontiers of electronic music. Here, dissonance and beauty are two sides of the same spinning coin, and the transition from one to the other is merely a matter of perspective. The “Switch” disc’s final minutes — Infoslut’s explosive (and brilliantly named) sound voyage He Dreamt She Was An Atom, She Dreamt He Was Enola Gay and N.Kra’s sizzling eight-bit Metroid Remix — should leave you breathless.
And this, from a label that you probably would have ignored or dismissed outright in 1998. Albums like The Freest of Radicals restore faith in the musical adventure; the revelations here, both unassuming and astonishing, are the reason we take musical risks, whether we’re slapping down extortionate prices for intriguing-looking import albums or making the time to check out an unassuming CDR from an unknown artist. And increasingly as the years wear on, they’ll be the reason we download.