Switched On – Ryan Teague: Recursive Iterations (King Tree)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ryan Teague’s first album release in three years is an intriguing affair. In keeping with his ability to change tack with each new record, the music sets itself within an algorithmic framework. This has been of great interest to the composer for some time, for his approach to music is as much by way of sound design and architecture as it is melody and harmony. Recursive Iterations, then, takes seven different sets of ‘cells’ and makes a suite from them, bringing together disparate styles and textures.

What’s the music like?

Extremely distinctive, and hard to pin down stylistically. Teague’s different pools of reference – music for TV and film, modern classical, urban, even grime – all come together in fascinating cells that feel like a collision of more than one style at a time.

And yet there is an older style at work, that of the ‘round’ – music like Frère Jacques, where layers would be added to a ‘ground’ bass that stays constant all the way through.

Teague takes those cells, reorders and arranges them, keeps a constant rhythm going, and makes them sound alive and mysterious at the same time. Rich bass sounds can appear – like the start of Recursive Iteration II – in a style that recalls Burial, and yet at the top is a busy, more minimal block that generates energy. Including a Hawaiian guitar adds colour too, and in the middle of the texture there are occasional swoons from a string-like pattern that could be from an old film. A stop-start rhythm holds it all together, while glitches and bugs prevent the music from ever sounding too ordered or inevitable.

At times Teague works with open-ended harmony, so while the melodies are all compact, the music can end up facing outwards. This happens in Recursive Iteration III, which turns out to be semi-orchestral in its concept. While much of the music is instrumental, Recursive Iteration IV uses vocal snippets to good effect, while Recursive Iterations V has a wordless synthesized chorus as its electronics twist and curl at the edges.

In his interview for Arcana, Teague was extremely complimentary of the composer Webern’s ability to work with silence. He uses a similar tactic very well here, effectively placing pauses between musical statements to give the impression that the algorithms in Recursive Iterations were regenerating. Given the concentrated textures it is helpful for the listener to have these slight pauses, like essential punctuation in musical sentences. Recursive Iteration VI – arguably the best iteration – uses silence within a framework of glittering keyboards, rushes of weather-like sounds, a bigger string-based chord and a wavy guitar line. The consonant harmonies give an attractive outlook.

Does it all work?

Yes, in a curious way it does. Teague’s music is definitely worth giving time and attention to, as Recursive Iterations is a lot more dense in content than previous albums. He works the source material really cleverly, despite its pre-programmed elements, and creates some interesting and very curious clashes of sound and style within his carefully aligned structures.

Is it recommended?

Yes. By striking out for something new rather than towing the neo-classical line, Ryan Teague is pushing his music forward in a very interesting way. Recursive Iterations sounds different to anything you will hear this year, part human and part algorithm, yet packing lots of detail and concentrated feeling into its core. A fascinating release which in a few years will almost certainly reveal itself as much more than the sum of its parts we think it is now!