Heads will recognize the phrase "Mastered and cut by Rashad Becker at Dubplates & Mastering, Berlin" as a kind of electronic-music seal of approval. Even if we don't listen to the music on the physical medium it's optimized for, Becker's imprimatur lends gravity. Taking over after the departure of Robert Henke (a.k.a. Monolake), Becker has helmed the Basic Channel–founded facility since 1997. The volume of his back-end credits is overwhelming, but mastering remains a slippery concept, and Becker's debut album for the redoubtable PAN challenges whatever feeble expectations we've managed to eke out. His day job is a hard-to-grasp complex of objective tasks with subjective aims—rolling off frequencies, finessing the stereo image, tailoring tracks for vinyl or CD, all in the service of the artist's perceived intention. It's a minefield of intentional fallacy, enough make an English major's head explode. His own music, however, is feral and immediate, albeit a continent away from dance music. It's a reminder that, despite moments of crossover success, PAN is primarily an experimental, uncompromising prospect.
Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I turns out to be a straightforwardly descriptive title, as these things go. The album—divided somewhat arbitrarily into numbered "Dances" and "Themes"—sounds like the mutant form of communication Korg Electribes and modular synths would develop after having been abandoned in the woods and left to propagate freely. Becker seems to be simply documenting these insectoid sounds in their natural environment, à la Chris Watson, rather than creating them in the traditional sense; hinged squawks of feedback, serrated chirrups of watery, LFO-damaged synths, and even vaguely human moans are captured in precise topographic detail, and left in big yawning loops. For music so resolute and unique in its vision, it's also richly referential. Without ever sounding exactly like anything else, Becker's music has slivers of conceptual overlap with the unstable tones of Jon Hassell's fourth-world music, Bee Mask's febrile techno-naturalism, and David Tudor's scandalous, juddering spurts.
Becker's debut album appears difficult because it is not made for what the artist terms "music-hostile environments," or their attendant attention spans. Like the best avant-garde music, Traditional Music is intended for a kind of pure, unprejudiced listening style, ideally on a well-tuned hi-fi. These looping sounds cohere, albeit in strange and non-narrative shapes, but require a degree of patience and open-mindedness that is thin on the ground, even for listeners who connected with, say, PAN's Lee Gamble releases. The absence of anything close to immediate gratification might induce an itchy anxiety in those accustomed to running music in the background. Still, despite its thorny convolutions, Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I also provides us with the tools to really hear it, and expands the hushed reverence surrounding Becker's name to his own work, not just others'.