The Sonig label was founded 15 years ago in Köln by Frank Dommert and Mouse On Mars, and has continually been releasing experimental, sometimes absurdist electronic music by various similarly-minded German artists, as well as a few Americans. One such artist, Jason Forrest, actually sent me this box set a few months ago, but it’s so massive that it’s taken me this long to fully digest the thing and be able to write about it. Other than Forrest and Mouse On Mars and related projects, I’m mostly familiar with the label’s roster through their compilations, all of which I own. The two audio discs in this box set are designated “Exp” and “Hop”, presumably meant to separate the label’s experimental side from its dancey side, but there’s so much cross-pollination that these categories end up almost meaningless.
Case in point: The first disc, “Exp”, begins with some of the compilation’s poppiest numbers. Nathan Michel’s “A To B” is taken from his 2005 album The Beast, which was the follow-up to his 2003 Tigerbeat6 album Dear Bicycle. I always thought that album sounded like what would have happened if Frank Zappa had lived to discover the early ’00s American laptop IDM scene, and actually got involved with it enough to release an album on Tigerbeat6. So when I heard that Nathan Michel was actually a member of Merge Records indie-pop group Hospitality, I was surprised and confused. But listening back to “A To B”, it makes a little more sense. There’s still a bit of twitchiness and a sort of detachedness to it, and it definitely doesn’t play it entirely straight. But it’s still a pretty relaxed offbeat pop song, and Hospitality vocalist Amber Papini brings it further down to earth. After this song is a track by Workshop, a German group who released their final two albums on Sonig. “Für Wen?” is a fairly relaxed song heavy on acoustic guitars and German singing, but with a hint of freaked-out distorted drumming during the bridge towards the end of the song.
For the most part, the rest of the disc features the type of glitchy, mostly instrumental IDM the label is known for. Microstoria and C-Schulz & Hajsch provide some minimal laptop drone, Schlammpeitziger provides some melodic circuitbent sounds, Mouse On Mars and side project Lithops do their crunchy blippy thing. The Wevie De Crepon (AKA Wevie StondeR) track is relatively chilled out and gimmick-free compared to most of their material. Uské Orchestra does a squeaky, squawky avant-orchestral piece which eventually settles on a pretty melody for a few seconds towards the end. Scratch Pet Land balance a calm 8-bit synth melody with a restless stuttering drum break. The disc gets back on the avant-pop track with a dramatic song by Dogr called “Man On Earth”, which starts as a very tense minimalist piece before resolving with a sunny Beach Boys-esque melody. This segues into a track from Kevin Blechdom’s avant-country-pop song cycle Gentlemania. Then it’s back to minimal instrumental music, first with C-Schulz & F.X. Randomiz providing a slithering train-like rhythm, then with Vert performing the first 15 minutes of a concert which was released as his first full-length album in 1999.
The title of the second disc, “Hop” leads you to believe that you’ll be hearing hip-hop, but the only overt rap music is by Berlin-based Xberg Dhirty6 Cru. Deutsch rap still isn’t a concept I’m fully able to wrap my head around, but the music itself is decently produced and interesting enough. Other than this, the title “Hop” seems to fit the rest of the disc in that it’s not so much dance music, but a more abstract way of moving around. You could definitely imagine people hopping and squirming around awkwardly on a dance floor to these tracks, rather than full-on dancing. Anyway, there’s a lot of really fun, glitchy abstract tracks here, a lot of which continue to cross-polinate experimental pop with dance music. Audiogarde’s “Something’s Wrong”, from the Popular Emotions album which was originally slated to be released on Forrest’s Cock Rock Disco label but ended up being a MP3-only release on Sonig several years later, is a fantastic song with shuffly beats and old-timey crooning vocals, chopped up for the laptop age. Baleine 3000′s “Fa Nal” is a celebratory, tropical-influenced party song, and Mouse On Mars’ “Untitled States Of” is easily one of their more successful dance-leaning tracks. Schlammpeitziger is represented on this disc by the appropriately dubby “Von Dubtisten”, which segues into a dubstep track by DJ Elephant Power. I have to admit I hadn’t heard anything by Elephant Power since his first album in 2004, which was way more scratch-heavy, and had no clue he was making music like this now. In the annoyingly catchy department we have Ec8or founder Patric Catani under his Candie Hank guise, with a little ditty called “The Booty Bank”. It starts innocently enough as a call-and-response chant with ex-Stereo Total singer Angie Reed over some banging drum machine beats, then shifts into hypersilly mode halfway through, complete with slide whistles and cutesy (but still impressively complex) synth melodies. While trying to get that bit of utter ridiculousness out of your head, you get to hear “Nightclothes And Headphones”, Jason Forrest’s collaboration with fellow WFMU alum Laura Cantrell. Lyrically, the song is a tribute to the magic of radio, and it remains as gorgeous and touching as it was in 2005 when it appeared on Forrest’s last release for Sonig, Shamelessly Exciting.
After this, there’s an excellent track by Sun OK Papi K.O. which starts out sounding closer to the first disc, with distorted plucked instruments reminiscent of Finnish groups such as Kemialliset Ystävät, but gradually works in some more melodic beats, and then some choppy drum’n'bass breakbeats and then bouncy dance beats which tie everything together rhythmically. Fanal contributes a curious minimal track with a nervous-sounding hi-hat tittering away, and a pretty little melody standing by the wall looking all lonesome. After this is a Vert track from one of his later, poppier albums with vocals, a heavily detailed and produced story-song with a bit of a samba melody, called “Step Under The Bulbshine”. The A&E and Fan Club Orchestra tracks are more glitchy, noisy abstract techno tracks, and the Workshop track is entirely different than the one on the first disc, and closer to a more guitar-centric, lo-fi version of Kompakt ambient techno. The disc ends with an uncharacteristcly dancey track by Lithops, which is usually a more experimental alter-ego for Mouse On Mars’ Jan St. Werner (and to be quite honest, I usually prefer his material under this moniker to his main group).
The box set also includes a DVD featuring 31 videos by 17 of the label’s artists. I kind of wish I didn’t watch the entire thing in one sitting, because even though I enjoyed much of it, 3 hours of surrealist imagery, computer graphics and performance clips can get pretty mind-numbing. Also, I’ve always hated “Actionist Respoke”. But on the plus side, there’s both brilliant, hilarious Jason Forrest videos (“Steppin’ Off” and “War Photographer”), Lithops providing some frantic city imagery (“Generator”) as well as housebound claustrophobia (“Noiseroom Video”), and Scratch Pet Land exploring bright and buzzy imagery (“Escargot Couleurs”) as well as abstract filming techniques with grainy handheld cameras (“Carpet Land”). There’s also a video for a shortened version of the Sun OK Papi K.O. track, which features a comically multi-limbed blue felt blob with no face, waiting at his house for his friend to stop by with his guitar so they can jam out. The Uské Orchestra video has some appropriate stop-start collage animation. Vert’s “Velocity” is a cartoon featuring a skateboarding stickfigure and an octopus. Workshop have two vastly different videos: a folksy pop song called “Erfüllung” which shows them singing in a German village, and a 20-minute self-titled grainy black-and-white art film from 1985. Oh, and there’s also a “Booty Bank” video, preceded by a long, rambling interview with an uneasy, bored-looking Patric Catani.
The liner notes include a prologue by David Grubbs and an interview with Frank Dommert, who runs the label solo, but with close participation and guidance by Mouse On Mars, who are focusing their energy on their music career instead of running a label full-time. The liner notes suggest that there isn’t any particular logic to the tracks selected on the discs, just material that has been released on the label and which is all characteristically Sonig, even if some of the newer signings are a little different than what fans of the label’s earlier releases would have expected. But even though Dommert sees a lot of value in exploring and revisiting the music of the past, Sonig is first and foremost about the present and the future, and continues to release music which he feels is relevant to the present. The label does not release reissues as many other popular independent labels do, and if they decided to do this, they’d rather just start a different label. But this box set exists as a handy way to sum up the label’s progress, while keeping you guessing what comes next.