Boomkat Product Review:
Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto's fourth album is a brooding collaboration with the Ensemble Modern - a darker, dronier and more minimal release than its predecessors that drives Sakamoto's glacial melodies through smudgy Xerrox-ed orchestral-electronic drones.
Commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Mannheim, a large city in the south west of Germany, "Utp_" is a pristine and deliberately slow paced celebration of the concept of utopia, a reference to the initial idea behind the city's planning. While Mannheim was settled in the early Middle Ages, it was just a village until the 17th century, when Frederick IV devised a grid system for the new city center, building with an eye to the future; he even declared it a city before it was completely settled. Four hundred years after the founding in 1608, Nicolai and Sakamoto were tasked with putting together a tribute, and they responded with a 10-part multimedia work that took its inspiration from Mannheim's unique shape.
Listening now, "Utp_" has an intriguing quality that separates it from Nicolai and Sakamoto's previous collaborations. Firstly, it's markedly less digital, and Nicolai's usual glitch rhythms take a backseat role; the German producer is comfortable here processing in a more subtle way, no doubt inspired by the placid direction of his 2007 album "Xerrox". Secondly, the inclusion of Ensemble Modern (who contribute percussion, woodwind and string instrumentation) fleshes out the pair's usual piano and electronics sound into a gorgeous swell of cinematic classical orchestration. Early in the album, Ensemble Modern mimic Nicolai's familiar treatments with staccato rhythmic elements and brusque percussion; subtle electronic glitches materialize eventually, but it's a processed drone that takes the central position.
Abstract, textural experiments like 'Particle 1' also curve past Nicolai and Sakamoto's usual direction, and show how integral Ensemble Modern's contribution was to the overall sound. But it's breathy, Arvo Pärt-inspired heartstoppers like 'Plateaux 1' and the lengthy finale 'Plateaux 2' that have stuck in our memory for the last decade plus. Ensemble Modern's strings are stretched into granulated, widescreen purrs that reference Gas, Cliff Martinez and Jóhann Jóhannsson at once.