Minimalist electronic music’s greatest strength lies in its subtlety, in how much you can do with seemingly very little. It’s most common shortcoming, however, often lies in the same place. A common problem for newcomers to genres like microhouse and minimal techno is in their approach. They end up sounding overtly cold and mechanistic, and often indistinguishable from each other.
For veteran Chilean microhouse musician Ricardo Villalobos, this has never once been a trap he’s found himself in, and with his 2017 release, “Empirical House,” released on record label [a:rpia:r], he has created a work of microhouse that not only manages to eschew the sense of being “samey” that can sometimes plague minimalist electronics, but he introduces into electronic minimalism something that even its most recognizable purveyors often neglect to – – an undeniable sense of fun.
From the very beginning of the opening track “Widodo,” the steady rise and fall of a picked double-bass inject a bouncing jazz rhythm into several quiet layers of marimba trills and understated vocal sampling and a whole assortment of percussive grooves. The result is a track that (truly in the microhouse tradition) is subdued and very laid-back in tone, but it is also shockingly energetic, practically demanding the listener move without the song it itself ever lifting a finger, remaining relentlessly cool in the way that only jazz and jazz-adjacent music really can. Almost twelve minutes of “Widodo” practically feels too short.
The next track, “Bakasecc,” is even more beat-heavy, gently placing any overt sense of melody just behind a vast array of clicks and beeps of every sort flashing in and out of the sonic forefront of the track, quietly melding into a single ebbing and flowing wave of sound, an electronic staccato symphony of sorts. The wave is so hypnotic in form one is only awakened from the deep trance when a bass shows up around halfway through, rejuvenating the track with a newfound sense of active energy that carries it into its closing, and straight into the following track “Subpad.”
“Subpad” is defined by its atmosphere which, in contrast to “Bakasecc’s” multitude of short and quick notes, is defined by sustained ambient chords that linger behind the soulful microhouse of Villalobos bread and butter. The track is as hypnotic as “Bakasecc” before it, but for the opposite set of sonic influences. This versatility that Villalobos really begins to display at this point in “Empirical House” becomes fully exemplified by its title track, a 13-and a-half-inute package of most of the diverse approaches to minimalist house and techno shown previously in the album, but re-arranged into a single cohesive package, finally blended to together with a constant string of, of all things, different samples of the sound of bubbles rising up in water; the choice seems bizarre on paper but under Villalobos’ expert implantation blends with the music so perfectly one could practically not even notice that it’s there for being too engrossed in the music as a whole, rather than the individual components that build it up. Villalobos is very good at hiding his brush strokes, and his art is made all the more beautiful as a result.
Each of “Empirical House’s” four long-form tracks functions pretty consistently as self-contained examples of two or three stylistic innovations repeated and re-arranged until they naturally come to a close by their own volition. It is utterly deceptive just how few base materials comprise “Empirical House”, given that Villalobos has effectively created four entire sonic worlds across the album, each feeling full, complete, and truly vast. A true master of house production and of minimalist composition, Villalobos’ ability to synthesize these two creative knacks is practically unmatched among his peers, so it has been for the bulk of his career.
“Empirical House” may very well stand up to the best of Villalobos’ work, and even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of his work from circa the early 2000s, there’s a distinct freshness about this new album that feels very much of its time; Villalobos doesn’t feel stuck in the era of his most well-regarded works because he fully eager to try new things musically, no matter how easy it would probably be to garner acclaim by remaking 2003’s “Alcachofa” five times over. Ricardo Villalobos’ practiced skill as a house and techno producer is still ever-present throughout his new work, but perhaps even more important is the clarity with which his sheer passion for the act of creating continues to break through to the forefront of his music. “Empirical House” becomes as enjoyable as it is primarily as a result of this endless passion.