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ARTIFACT • STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9)

Up until a little over a year ago, I was undoubtedly like many puremusic.com's readers, in that if I thought about electronic music at all, I conjured up the seemingly random blips and bleeps of 20th century classical computer compositions, or the para-military, disco thump of dance tracks. My epiphany came in a coffee shop where the digital radio was broadcasting this almost smooth-jazz sounding piano over some of the funkiest drum grooves I had ever heard. Part of the fascination was that I couldn't tell whether the drums were played, sampled, or programmed. The epiphany part was that I didn't care--I only knew that the groove swung like a mofo and rocked my world. It would be a convenient literary conceit if that revelation had been courtesy of STS9, but in fact it was a DJ/musician collective from Berlin called Jazzanova. Where the Atlanta bred, San Francisco based Sound Tribe Sector 9 comes in is that they embody so many of the pleasurable qualities I discovered in subsequently exploring the international music genre loosely collected under the rubric "Electronica."

STS9 started life a funky instrumental jam band in the mold of Aquarium Rescue Unit or moe., but somewhere between their first and second record they fully embraced the ethos of electronica-- meaning that in addition to mixing a large dose of samples and synths in with their live and acoustic sounds, the music became less about individual performances and all about texture, flow, and groove. This style of real-time playing and electronic manipulation has become an unofficial genre of its own called "livetronica," and STS9 are one of its prime exponents. (Another example is the amazing music of the Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, available on iTunes).

With Artifact, STS9 lean heavily toward the sonic manipulation part of their art. For this relatively mellow affair, they have culled four years of recordings made in "bedrooms, hotels, moving vehicles, parking garages..." to create a work that can function equally as hip, relaxing background music and an intense listening experience. Under close examination, the music reveals the subtle and often surprising shifts of tone and texture emblematic of electronica: ambient washes dissolve into acoustic guitar rhythms; super-funky drum patterns start and stop to provide as much color as groove; vocals appear more as another hue than as an up-front statement. If I haven't discussed individual tunes it is because the twenty-some tracks dissolve into each other in a way that discourages such fragmentation, while still providing the emotional ups and downs that a collection of great songs might evoke.

Electronica like this comes as close to being "pure music" as anything out there. Unadulterated by instrumental, vocal, or sonic rules and restrictions, at its best it offers a world where sound and feeling directly connect. Some wag once said, "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and this is no less true of electronica than it is of singer/songwriter records. The good news is that in this era of endless releases, ten percent leaves a lot of good stuff that is worth checking out, and STS9's Artifact is as good a place as any to start. • Michael Ross

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