Brian Leeds has been wrestling with electronic music’s utilitarian aspects since he was barely out of his teens. He started his career as Huerco S. in 2011 with a series of 12 “s that subverted house music’s rhapsodic abandon, buffing its surface until the dancefloor seemed to lie behind a pane of frosted glass. As he became recognized in dance music circles as an innovator of what was inelegantly called “outsider” house, he dipped in and out of club-centric styles until he abandoned them altogether on 2016’s For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have). Despite its stature as one of the defining ambient albums of the past decade, many tracks on For Those of You cut to stark, disorienting silence mid-phrase, insistently reminding the listener that any blissful state is by nature temporary. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone using the album in their next savasana.
Still, Leeds seems to conflict the album’s success with the slow spread of more docile strains of ambient music. “[Ambient] is like productivity music, capitalist music, ”he told Bandcamp last year. “It does not get in your way, like you can still work your job. It kinda makes me cringe a bit. And maybe I feel responsible for that. ” In the past five years, under the name Pendant, he’s just released two albums of abstract, billowing sound that few would call easy listening. Whenever consensus builds around what he’s doing, Leeds, seemingly feeling his back against the wall creatively, sheds his skin and walks away — not just from a sound or style, but from how listeners engage with his music as a part of their daily lives.
Plonk is Leeds’ first album as Huerco S. in six years, and once again the album’s brilliance comes from the way it subverts its utilitarian framing. The titular sound that acts as the music’s aesthetic anchor is inspired by the mechanics of an automobile, metal against metal working in concert to produce forward motion. Car culture and electronic music share intersecting histories that bridge the gap between Germany and Detroit, but there is no motorik pulse signifying the steady passing of highway lines here. It’s hard to say that its ideal setting is a long drive, as Leeds has tentatively suggested, either; the depth of the album’s production is lost beneath the hum of the motor and the rush of the road. Plonk is much more inventive, much more varied and surprising, than the framework suggests.
One Plonk‘s most striking aspects is Leeds’ Escher-esque approach to rhythm and song structure, with repetitive loops often taking a backseat to translucent drift and illusory syncopation. The first two tracks are percussive without relying on a pulse; in fact, they almost forgo any hint of a steady tempo. “Plonk I” opens with flickering beads of sound tapping at the ears like droplets hitting a windowpane, and they become more insistent, but never more coherent, as the first track develops. Tessellating pulses of synthesizer detonate at irregular intervals before evaporating into hiss and bassy rumble on “Plonk II,” punctuated by expectant periods of dead silence. Only as “Plonk III” ramps up is there any semblance of rhythmic continuity, and with a rush of drum machine the music becomes a multi-dimensional current of interlocking grooves.