Graded on a Curve:
Mark Van Hoen,
Nightvision

Electronic music is often judged on the breakthroughs reliably brought to the turntable by fresh voices. Although focusing on newcomers is surely understandable, the worthwhile contributions of veterans shouldn’t be misplaced, and the latest release from UK born and current Los Angelino Mark Van Hoen is an excellent example. Nightvision finds the longstanding solo artist and deft collaborator exploring familiar territory and avoiding redundancy; it’s out November 13 on LP/CD/digital via the Saint Marie label.

Prominent on Mark Van Hoen’s résumé is his series of recordings as Locust, the tally accruing a mess of EPs and a half-dozen full-lengths beginning with 1994’s Weathered Well on the R&S Records ambient subsidiary Apollo. After the following year’s Truth is Born of Arguments and ’97’s Morning Light, Locust shifted to the Touch imprint for ‘01’s Wrong, a pair of CDs intended to be played simultaneously.

Locust then undertook a long hiatus as Van Hoen remained highly active. In fact the output under his own name actually spans back to ’97’s The Last Flowers of the Darkness on Touch and prior to that ‘94’s Aurobindo: Involution, a duo work with his Seafeel/Scala colleague Daren Seymour issued on Ash international.

Alongside extensive production credits additional creative partnerships have accumulated; early on there was the trio Autocreation in cahoots with Tara Patterson and Kevin Hector, their album Mettle hitting racks in ’94 through Inter-Modo, a fleeting imprint run by the Orb’s Alex Paterson. More recently Black Hearted Brother, Van Hoen’s duo with Slowdive/Mojave 3 guitarist Neil Halstead has emerged, releasing Stars Are Our Home through Sonic Cathedral Records.

Van Hoen’s arrival in the mid-‘90s may have heralded him as a new name, but he’d already been recording for a decade; Locust’s ’94 In Remembrance of Times Past collected ‘80s material, and so did The Worcester Tapes, 1983-1987, a limited edition cassette appearing under the Van Hoen moniker earlier this year on the Tapeworm label.

This ten-year period of activity is no shock, but far less likely is Van Hoen’s continued relevance in a field not especially known for fostering longevity. Part of the reason can perhaps be attributed to his loose allegiance to genre; unlike those scoring a big plunge into more rigidly outlined (or even faddish) waters, he’s evaded getting stylistically boxed in or for that matter tactically constrained; the early Locust stuff relied more on programming and sequencing, and After the Rain, the project’s ‘13 effort on Editions Mego derives from live playing in collab with Louis Sherman and a handful of singers.

Van Hoen’s not averse to beats but he’s also not accurately assessed as a dance guy. He leans instead into experimental, abstract, drone, and ambient territory, making his oeuvre well-suited for the home environment. Listing the expected influences of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk and sprinkling in the welcome but unsurprising additive of Steve Reich and less frequently cited precedent of David Sylvian, he later enthused over the inspiration triggered by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

That last name can imply a certain avant-severity, though extremes are not generally Van Hoen’s bag. While the layered vocal repetition of “Holy Me,” the final nine and a half minute track from his ’12 Editions Mego LP The Revenant Diary did tangle with the fringes, nothing on Nightvision travels so far into the aural deep-weeds, the disc’s opener “All for You” utilizing gradually unfolding and slow-drifting keyboard patterns and minimal rhythmic undercurrents to produce an atmosphere fairly tagged as retro-futuristic as it lacks any palpable throwback irony.

It’s a bit like a blend of two professed Van Hoen faves, namely Cabaret Voltaire and Tangerine Dream, with the latter signifying a recurring cinematic quality. To wit, during “Froese Requiem I” the big beat promotes action, the keyboards instill dramatic tension, and the short spurts of tech suggest a potentially malicious robot lingering somewhere in the narrative.

Opening “Froese Requiem II” is an ethereal motif spiced with a touch of static, though the setting quickly shifts into glistening/burbling electro and drum thump. It’s somewhat akin to waking up at 2AM on the couch in the rec-room as the credits to a rented VHS tape unspool on the television screen. Certainly of interest to fans of John Carpenter’s sonic endeavors (soundtrack and otherwise), the diced femme voice lends distinctiveness to the piece.

Speaking of drum thump, the rhythmic manner of “Socrates’ Books” mingles with a synthetic cathedral gothic milieu to inspire visions of thirsty vampires preying on the inhabitants of a late-night techno dance party. Alternately, it’s a smidge similar to Terry Riley picking up some extra folding money by anonymously scoring straight-to-video cheapies for The Cannon Group.

Again, Van Hoen sidesteps nostalgia-corn pretty consistently; “Bring it Back” blends decaying synth ooze and rhythm-chatter, a sound approximating dripping liquid, and manipulated operatic-tinged vocal elements into a whole that’s thoroughly up-to-date. “The Night Sky” is entirely defined by a keyboard aura reminiscent of the ‘80s, missing a beat and eschewing techno as the methodical glide proves too robust to be adequately pegged as ambient or New Ageist.

At first “Kojiki” seems to be a hodgepodge of chopped-up and overlaid facets transitioning into another airy synth excursion, but then the echo-laden drum line combines with the weave of cyclical backwards-style voice alteration and an overall sense of wooziness to formulate one of Nightvision’s highlights. If it and “I Love to Fly” do explore zones descended from ‘80s-‘90s club sounds, in the end they register as just too weird for all but a particularly drug-friendly dance floor.

Notable in this context is “I Love to Fly”’s spoken dialogue (from Martin Bell’s ’84 documentary Streetwise if I recall correctly), and “A Wish” fruitfully continues along this path, reverberating like a tweaked post-industrial progression mating with a platter of trip-hop left out on the counter to spoil. And this ‘90s scenario carries over quite nicely into the LP’s finale, “Sensing the Close” initially courting a vibe that would’ve been perfectly at home amongst the Too Pure stable.

As the cut develops it manages to bring to mind Riley, ‘70s electronic pioneer Laurie Spiegel and even snippets of the unearthed private-press New Age excursions chronicled on the recent box set I Am the Center. There are indeed a bunch of reference points in this review, but Nightvision exudes cohesion characteristic of a veteran musician, Mark Van Hoen in firm command of his significant talent as others have exited the scene.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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