Machine Dreams – Local electronic group Null Device goes national

Al Ritchie, The IsthmusOutsiders might think Madison has some thriving electronic music scene or something.

Well…thriving? No. Fertile? It seems so.

Following in the footsteps of Oneiroid Psychosis and Stromkern, Null Device is the latest locally bred synth/industrial artists to produce a nationally released CD in the last few years. Sublimation, issued by the Ohio-based Nilaihah label, is a rich collage of sinewy electro-melodies, coolly emotional vocals and tastefully detailed production.

For Eric Oehler, the principal behind Null Device, the album is the culmination of many years spent learning the arts of songwriting and computer-based recording. He can pinpoint specific artistic decisions that keyed his transition from amateur keyboard-noodler to legitimate recording artist. “A big step”, he says, “was when I decided to do something more interesting vocally than my initial concept of 'angry distorted industrial vocals.' Once I decided to actually sing, everything suddenly had a better flow. The lyrics made mroe sense, the songs had more emotional resonance, and I felt I could start thinking of this as something more than just a spare-bedroom hobby.”

The other big decision he made was to install his friend Eric Goedken as an official second member of Null Device, albeit a member with an unorthodox role. Oehler, you see, remains the band's sole musician (in the traditional sense of the word, that is), performing all vocal and instrumental duties. Goedken, besides being the primary lyricist, acts mainly in a conceptual capacity, helping to steer Oehler's musical ideas in appropriate directions. Goedken lives in Berkeley, CA, so the two collaborate by trading mp3 files via e-mail.

This unusual partnership seems to work well for them. “By not being encumbered with the technological details of recording, [Goedken] does an excellent job of keeping me from wandering off into an obscure studio-geeky direction” says Oehler. “Just because I found it interesting to program a particular sound doesn't mean that sound's going to improve the song.”

Both Erics are knowledgeable about electronic and alternative music of diverse origin, while Oehler also credits his training as a classical violinist in shaping his approach. “We get our influences from all over,” he says. “I listen to all sorts of things, from Turkish pop music to glitch techno, and spend a lot of time trying to figure out what ideas I can learn from the various genres.”

Sublimation attests to this strategy. Diverse flavors abound, from the Gregorian chant-like feel of “Sacre Coeur” to the Peter Hook-like bass lines of “Call of the rose; from the minimalist IDM of the Bjork-inspired “How” to the organic violin-guitar textures on “If Only for a While.” The album also features Null Device's bouncy cover of the Smiths' “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, already a favorite in dance clubs, as well as a remix of “Footfalls” by Stromkern's Ned Kirby.

The trick, in a field as narrowly defined as synthpop, is to establish a distinctive identity — a trick the Erics pull off admirably. “We've tried diligently as a band to keep from falling into the rut of 'just another Depeche Mode clone,” says Oehler.

Goedken follows: “We try to mean and feel what we are singing. The lyrics all come from something I believe in or am part of in some way. They are also recognizeable as Null Device in the sense that Eric's voice cuts through all the tracks as a sincere expression of himself.”

(reprinted courtesy of The Isthmus)