It’s well into 2016 and suddenly The Field is back with another album in the exact same format as his earlier work, right down to the album art – what began as eggshell almost a decade ago is now a darker shade of black. Same bag of tricks, shuffled around. What surprise could there be? What’s the point?
The point, it turns out, is that he’s actually getting better at this, and has been for a while.
I’ve been a fan of Axel Willner’s music as The Field for nearly a decade, enthusing about his debut From Here We Go Sublime just a few months after starting Optimistic Underground. Although his formula hasn’t changed much, it’s matured and refined toward very specific ends. This is a method, not a blueprint. Willner uses pointillist micro sounds to paint epic techno landscapes, framing entire narratives out of the open space between sharply defined notes. He originally approached techno from an outsider’s position, reducing pop samples to their bare essence and building songs from these pieces, brick by brick, but at this point he’s broadcasting from the very core of this insulated genre.
The album begins in a holding pattern with a rubbery 4/4 beat for several minutes, setting up a false sense of comfort that will certainly be subverted. In a twist similar to the ending of his debut album, Willner flips the rhythm at the mid point, tipping the song on its side. A sudden bass melody spirals down and the remainder of the 10 minute intro are spent in free fall. It’s simultaneously the most minimal and warmest his work has ever sounded. The rest of the album follows this example, exploring every facet of its narrow palette with the calm detail of a jeweler’s eye.
Most songs begin and end in the same sonic space, billowing up into ringing cloud layers at the middle before slowly flattening into a stream. Quietly colorful synths erupt, lifting songs into the stratosphere, then disappear; new percussive elements dot the soundscape, adding gravity in tiny increments. It’s all very detailed, complex, and specific in the close-up view. The big picture feels so naturally propulsive, it takes dedication to lean in and focus on the elements. Only after several listens could I zero in on what makes each moment hum. Willner makes it too easy to let go and be swept away in the wide angle torrent of sound.
The Follower may be another subtle revision of The Field’s user-friendly take on minimal techno, but that doesn’t mean it won’t win over anyone who was left cold before. This is catnip for fans of the genre, but there are entry points for outsiders all over the album. Fans already know that Willner has never truly repeated himself; if you liked his sound before, you’ll love this fresh perspective on it.
While many techno artists spend entire careers perfecting the same style, The Field playfully tweaks the process. Each new release brings a fun game: I get close to every track, stretching time and blurring vision, trying to pick out those micro-details that redefine how it all feels, despite my satisfaction with the super-cohesive big picture.
Axel Willner makes techno to write to, work to, drive to, and maybe even sleep to. Alone at home, it’s perfect for unwinding or getting a little excited and dancing on my own.