House long-players are difficult. They lack the transitions and cohesion of a mixed compilation, and yet straying too far from the usual blueprints can result in alienating listeners. Getting the right balance of diversity and unity is really tough, and the best most producers can manage is a collection of would-be singles padded out with a couple of ambient tracks for good measure. This is Robert Babicz’s third album, rounding out a trilogy for Systematic that already includes 2007’s ‘A Cheerful Temper’ and 2010’s ‘Immortal Changes’, and so there’s no serious question left concerning whether he’s capable of doing better. Both previous outings showcased Babicz’s superior studio-powers and musicianship, and saw him using those advantages to create soundscapes that consistently speak to lovers of electronic music without testing their patience. It’s a gift, and it’s very much on show on ‘The Owl and the Butterfly’ too.
This is a somewhat less varied album than it’s predecessor, largely sticking to four-to-the-floor rhythms and classic house and techno dynamics. But that’s not a complaint, and it still manages to cover a surprising amount of musical ground. Opener ‘Venus Transit’ sets the tone with washes of sound underpinned by a sequencer that’s pure Kraftwerk, before dropping into serious deep house territory, as delicate melodies unfold around each other. It’s a stunning first impression. ‘A Girl from Jupiter’ lets Babicz’s 303 out of the box early, while chattering hi-hats and a spacey, almost trancey melody propel things forward. The ‘Neo Dub’ mix of ‘Red Lips’ is an altogether darker affair. Mechanical percussion drives a sleazy groovy, soaked in dubby reverberation and spooky shards of melody. The album’s first downtempo offering comes in the form of ‘Crazy’, with a rolling dub track offset against Ange’s vocals. This was probably my least favourite track on the album, lacking the distinctiveness that characterised so many of the others. Things pick right up again, though, with the next track ‘Bensberg’ providing one of the highlights. This ups the tempo again, a memorably jerky bassline, skipping percussion, and layered guitar and synth melodies conspiring to produce a bouncy slice of loveliness.
Next up we have Babicz’s reworking of his ‘Sonntag’, first released in 2006 and reissued with new remixes earlier this month. Harsh hi-hats and detuned bass tones are pitted against a stuttering synth line that sounds for all the world like a mobile phone left too close to a speaker. But Mario Piu this ain’t, and Babicz builds the track into an odd but trippy and compelling experience, giving the album another highlight. ‘Drop’ is a dreamier number, with hints of both disco and dub in the mix. It builds nicely, but sadly it doesn’t ever really deliver the high-point it seems to be building towards, and so it left me a bit dissatisfied. I have no such complaints with ‘On the Streets’, which sees Babicz get into his ‘Rob Acid’ mindset and deliver an acid stormer with bundles of energy. It’s an absolute joy.
‘Grab Your Shoes’ features a low-slung, wobbly bass and funky drummer, while gentle chiming melodies lead into a lovely breakdown. A minor complaint is that the climax of the track comes inside the final minute, leading to a rather DJ-unfriendly abrupt ending. But it’s definitely a track worth being creative to include. The title ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ refers to a topic very close to my own heart, but the track itself was a little bit disappointing. It sees Babicz placing metallic melodies over a rolling bassline and skippy garage beat, but there just wasn’t enough progression across its six minutes to keep me really tuned in. Finally we have the cinematic ‘Flow’. Here we’re introduced to the gorgeous vocals of Karen Vogt, enfolded in swirls of synths and rather Celtic-sounding strings, before a more traditional guitar and bass arrangement takes over. It’s a lovely, contemplative note to close the album on.
The press-release for the album promises a ‘twenty-track opus’, but actually there’s really just the eleven tracks I’ve written about punctuated with 20 second sketches, which I have to say didn’t add much to my listening experience. But overall, ‘The Owl and the Butterfly’ is a seriously impressive piece of work. What’s amazing is the extent to which it’s unmistaken that it’s Babicz at the helm throughout. No one else could have made this album – it’s got ‘Babicz’ written through it like a stick of rock, though it’s much tastier and a whole lot better for your teeth. As I’ve already indicated, I don’t think that every track is an unqualified success, but the outstanding moments vastly outnumber the rest. ‘The Owl and the Butterfly’ is a real accomplishment, and it will further solidify Babicz’s reputation as a total master of his art.