Axel Willner has the power to change the way you think about music. An engineer can point out a tiny part or switch within a larger, more complicated device, revealing a more profound truth about the process as a whole. That’s what Willner does with samples, looping them and stitching them together into hypnotic, slowly mutating slabs of techno.
Take "From Here We Go Sublime," the title track from Willner’s 2007 debut as The Field. Its first half is blurry, gestating; it sounds like a strange orchestra has gotten stuck playing the same second over and over again. The song shudders to life after two minutes, revealing its source as The Flamingos’ doo-wop classic "I Only Have Eyes for You." Willner starts stretching the original like taffy, slowing it down until it’s unintelligible and startling. He’s a clockmaker zooming in on one tiny gear, pulling out to reveal the whole mechanism, and pulling the clock apart until it explodes.
It’s a startling piece of music, and Willner has spent the last decade expanding on the idea at its core: there’s joy in repetition, in glacial change. The Follower is his fifth LP and the second release of his "black period," during which his music has tiptoed toward the club floor. (Willner’s minimalist cover art makes interpretation easy. 2011’s Looping State of Mind, a transitional effort, found him using black text on a white background for the first time, and he blacked out 2013’s stormy Cupid’s Head.) He's making "dance music" — his chosen tempos occasionally push into trance territory — but it's slippery and formless. Songs like "Black Sea" — the throbbing, panting centerpiece of Cupid’s Head — suit marathon study sessions and strobe-lit club workouts equally well.
You have to wait seven minutes for the "drop"
The Follower maintains that balance, but it's a little more polarized. The title track is one of the most aggressive pieces Willner’s ever assembled, a whirlwind of shadow and acid with two distinct phases. It sounds mean; it’s not exactly Suicide, but you can imagine a punkish sneer. A few tracks later, "Monte Veritá" trades that sneer for propulsion. There’s even a drop, one that takes you from the floor of a haunted club into some kind of steam machine in the basement. It takes Willner almost seven minutes to get there.
The album’s second half is brighter and more placid, leaning on soft synths and murmuring, indistinct vocal samples that brush by like a breeze on your skin. By the time Willner waltzes into closer "Reflecting Lights," he’s almost completely turned away from the hard-charging sound of "The Follower." He ends the album with a quarter-hour of beatific, burbling kosmische, and it feels like a tribute to the krautrock pioneers — think Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk — who blazed a trail for Willner almost half a century ago. It’s warm music, stripped of the menace with which he cracked the album open.
Everything about The Field's music is a tribute to process
The Follower covers more ground than Willner’s other releases as The Field, but that’s like saying your dog walked around the block instead of sniffing around the backyard. If you’ve been watching Willner work and grow for a decade, you’re going to see this album differently than someone who stumbles onto his discography and sees block after block of lengthy, loop-based minimal techno. This might sound like fodder for Willner’s detractors ("he’s been making the same song for 10 years, dude!") but I’d argue it’s become his greatest strength.
Willner’s been at this for a while, and the slow transformation of his music — the shift from headphones to dance floors, the increasing weight of his compositional hand — now feels just like the slow transformation you can hear in his ten-minute-plus tracks and his album-length tonal shifts. Every level of his output is a tribute to process. It’s like staring at a musical fractal, impressive whether you’re evaluating it at micro- or macro-scale. That sounds intimidating, but this music isn’t going anywhere, and The Follower’s release is just another reason to take the plunge. Cough up a few minutes and you might start hearing the music you love in a whole new way.