Harmonious Thelonious: Cheapo Sounds (Bureau B)

Modern electronica created on retro-futurist kit. Intellectual exercise? Analogue nostalgia? Uneasy listening? All of the above

Released Jan 20th, 2023 via Bureau B / By Ben Wood
Harmonious Thelonious: Cheapo Sounds (Bureau B) Technological limitations have inspired some of the best music ever. George Martin used some pretty basic kit to oversee Sgt Pepper. Lee 'Scratch' Perry made magic on just four tracks at the Black Ark. And Eno and Byrne spent countless hours making tape loops to piece together the po-mo collage of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Electronic producer Stefan Schwander, aka Harmonious Thelonious, obviously fancied a challenge. Cheapo Sounds (great title) sees him eschewing modern studio wizardry to make an entirely album of three-minute tracks on the Monomachine.

Released in the early 2000s but popular with those music-makers who love making electronica the old-skool, hands-on way, this intriguingly named gizmo forced him to swap his usual 'minimalism meets 'polyrhythms' approach for simpler beats, basic chords and melodies. Many big names use the Monomachine as part of their creative process. What could he do using this device alone?

Soft Opening Mode is a promising start. Its motorik beat, undulating snake-charmer bassline and son-of Trance Europe Express synth riff combine to make a surprisingly organic groove.

The album's warm, welcoming side is also expressed in Liquid Sound Waves. This tune's dubby, hypnotic feel makes it sound slightly more modern. The (rare) emergence of a thumping early house beat prompts the desired Pavlovan response.

So far, so groovy. However, the other key elements of the album's sound palette derive from the pre-rave 80s: moody, downbeat, dystopian. This is exemplified by the appropriately titled Limitations. It's danker, darker, though its Middle Eastern keys provide some contrast.

From hereon in, Cheapo Sounds oscillates between these poles, the motorik beats and (early 90s) trancey keys lifting us up while the more industrial elements take us somewhere darker. The promise of space exploration, and the existential Kubrickian loneliness it might inspire, is referenced in song titles such as Back From the Primitive Galaxy.

Sunglasses is the album in microcosm, its clumpy 80s drum patterns a cage that the pulsing, oscillating synths try to escape from. This writer must admit, he prefers the cheerier end of Cheapo Sounds' sonic spectrum.

Throughout the ten tunes here, the dots are joined between 70s kraut and early 90s trance. It would have been interesting to hear Stefan dedicate a whole album to the sound he explores on the whooshing, trancey Orion Stars. It's a highlight, as is mellow closer Afterhours, a welcome break from the album's midtempo norm.

A worthy and listenable experiment, but not an essential one. 3/5