Preview: This story will appear in FADER #79, on stands soon.
CFCF’s Exercises is out now on Paper Bag.
Mike Silver weaves utopian architecture and Glassian minimalism into an atmospheric suite of songs.
By the end of the 1960s, no respectable college campus was without an austere, hulking concrete art center or library, and cities looking to reshape their decaying urban centers tore through entire neighborhoods to make way for Brutalist architects like Louis Kahn, Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier’s utopian visions of tomorrow. Still largely unloved and lost in time, if not to the wrecking ball, these buildings offer a window into futures past, and it’s around this strict idealism that Canadian producer Mike Silver bka CFCF structured his new EP Exercises. “Growing up and living in Montreal,” says Silver, “that style is all around you every day. You’ll be going up an escalator on the metro and there are these giant slabs of concrete over your head. It’s an atmosphere I really like.” If the mini-album of Silver’s piano-dominated reveries is itself relatively short, one thing it is not short on is atmosphere. “I wanted to capture the feeling you get from being in those spaces. There’s a kind of presence I feel. It’s not spiritual, but you’re somehow aware of these past dreams, ideologies and hopes—a failed utopianism.”
Those nostalgic notions emerge with the album’s opening salvo—a plaintive piano figure in 7/4 that slowly spools itself in a gauze of swirling retro synthesizers. Part of the nostalgia might stem from the fact that, musically, we’ve been here before—or on vaguely similar terrain. The piano-led tunes on Exercises are in some respects just another step on the comfortably worn pathway carved out by the likes of Michael Nyman, Harold Budd and Brian Eno, and “Exercise #3 (Buildings)” blatantly co-opts the arcing ostinato melodies of Philip Glass. Silver readily admits that he was “tapping into” the Glass-penned score to Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, but as a whole the album is not just a simple study in recreation. “Exercise #2 (School)” salutes the listener with skittering percussion in the flavor of “whatever bass music is around right now,” while “Exercise #5 (September)” offers a sort of half-cover of David Sylvian packed in a wholly contemporary slipcase of snappy handclaps and loping side-chained synth pads, and the droning “Exercise #4 (Spirit)” adds the bray of VHS-grade digital sample.
Despite all the retro touchstones—both musical and architectural—Exercises is exactly the kind of record that could only be made today. Silver wrote and recorded the whole thing while he was “in-between homes without access to any recording gear or a studio.” With the exception of some “shitty DX-7” keyboard he added later, the entire album was done on a laptop. “The idea was to do something that wasn’t complicated,” he says. “My tendency is to keep adding more and more parts until you have this giant mammoth song with 40 tracks. This was a reaction to that. To just say, I’m going to record something today and I’m not going to think too much about it.” In the face of easy excess, the self-imposed limitations of Silver’s Exercises are a refreshing change of pace—a step-ping back to see the bald-faced beauty in something simple and concrete.