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Thavius Beck has remixed Nas and Nine Inch Nails. He’s toured with poet Saul Williams, and collaborated with Mars Volta frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and composer Trent Reznor. Before then, the Minnesota-born instrumentalist shaped the aesthetic of California’s Global Phlowtations crew; he produced, rapped on, and engineered its heralded Phlowtation Devices album. More recently, the Los Angeles producer is an Ableton Certified Trainer, who has showed contemporaries Photek, DJ Frank E and Skylar Grey how to use the technology.
With such an extensive résumé, Beck doesn’t need to drop solo work to remain relevant. Given his vast expertise, he could easily play in the background and stay comfortably in demand. Maybe that’s why Beck sounds so assured on his new instrumental album, The Most Beautiful Ugly, in which the veteran composer nods to several genres while keeping them closely aligned to his own electronic blend. The sounds are far-reaching, yet somehow constrained, resulting in an expansive 40-minute concoction of bounce beat, soul, and techno. With the cohesion, Beck manages to sidestep a fate that’s claimed many producers: instrumental albums can be a drag if they’re not executed properly. Here, the musician uses quick transitions to keep things lively. Many of the tracks stick around for two to three minutes; ‘Atmos,’ an airy melody of handclapping snares and ambient strings, clocks in at four minutes, 12 seconds.
From the onset, it’s clear that Beck is going for something cinematic, if not thoroughly sci-fi. The first voice heard on this album is an android’s: "Do my eyes deceive me? Could it be what I have longed for?/The piece that completes the puzzle, the most beautiful ugly." The music is an equally spacey mixture of glitchy electronics and triumphant synthesizers set atop programmed drums. It unfolds as a stomping procession worthy of a Terminator remake, though I’m not giving Schwarzenegger any ideas. ‘Break Til Broken,’ Ugly’s first official song, harbours the big feel and raving ethos of California’s beat scene; ominous guitars buzz underneath a cantankerous mix of bouncing percussion. What’s interesting, though, is how the album seems to settle as it plays. ‘Feel Me/Fear Me’ is a crossbreed of Southern crunk and West Coast G-funk, in which Beck manipulates the subgenres with distorted vocal samples and a gloomy bass line. Conversely, ‘Labward Bound’ is a Spanish dance rhythm on caffeine pills — horns blare at a furious pace and the beats-per-minute almost jump the rails.
With this album, and Beck’s work in general, the whole is much greater than its parts. Surely, you can pick certain songs as favourites, but this should be played in its entirety to fully absorb the impact. Like other effective instrumental LPs, The Most Beautiful Ugly compiles a series of vignettes into one coherent stream. With that said, Beck’s music is an acquired taste that could be too esoteric for some listeners. It’s still a respectable listen that does its best to project into the future.