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Album: Asylum Lunaticum | Label: Intransitive
Review by Matthew Wuethrich
in: Dusted Magazine New York on August 13, 2009

Asylum Lunaticum cover
Asylum Lunaticum cover

Asylum Lunaticum is interesting for a number of reasons, many of them not related to the actual sounds on the disc. First, there’s the couple’s very domestic biography: Hjuler and Bär are married, Hjuler works as a policeman in the town of Flensburg, Germany, while Bär runs a small gallery connected to their home and takes care of their young son, Cy. Second, there’s the artwork, lots of artwork: junk sculptures and collages by Hjuler, paintings by Bär, and over-the-top performance pieces by the duo. Of course, there is also the discography, a flood of handmade CD-Rs, lathe cuts, cassettes and vinyl in truly limited editions (the track from which this compilation takes its name came from an acetate LP run of 18 copies). For Hjuler and Bär, the album, if not a large part of their existence, is an art object, or at least a performance that can become one.

What then, can a plain old compact disc hope to tell us about them? At first hearing, it would seem to be not much. The seven pieces collected here initially seem like nothing more than rudimentary tape collages or bits of performances. Tape edits, most likely in the form of hitting the ‘REC’ and ‘Stop’ buttons, appear often, and very few effects, besides room reverb and tape-speed manipulation, are used. Otherwise, the sounds are either the voices of Hjuler or Bär interlaced or overdubbed with whatever environment they happen to be interacting with. Everything sounds as if it comes in mid-performance, or, in the case of "Meine erste Zeitmachine," mid-thought. The piece runs for over 13 minutes, and it features only the slight nasal pinch of Hjuler’s voice ranting (in German), combined with his rustling through what sounds like a garage or cluttered basement. The title means “My First Time Machine,” and knowing that, along with the sound effects, is enough to allow you the space to construct your own crazed narrative.

And it is intuitive narrative that Bär and Hjuler are pursuing, not any kind of composition. You listen to these pieces, hypnotized and anxious for something to happen in their surreal domestic dramas, but (spoiler!) nothing ever does. On "Lauf in Eine Herde," Hjuler runs into a field of cattle wearing red, but all you hear is heavy breathing and the annoyed mewing of a bovine or two. What first sounds like random syllables on “HJCVGrrimmelshausen” turns out to be Hjuler reading a text while inhaling on every word, something you pick up on as a halting, speech-like rhythm emerges. Absurdly, you soon find yourself trying to figure out what it is he’s saying, even though you don’t speak German.

But the true narrative centrepiece is Bär’s 25-minute epic, "Ehrfurcht." It’s a recording of Bär riding her bicycle through town, child and tape recorder in tow, humming some unidentified, endless melody. It has what every fiction workshop for beginners says a good story must have: a beginning, middle and an end. What actually happens is up for debate, but you feel the structure there, the contours of a personality engaging with the surrounding world in imaginative, fun ways. This is also what this CD gives us, the contours of Kommissar Hjuler and Mama Bär, and the wealth of their startling, shocking and humorous ideas. Not too many albums, in any format, can claim that.

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