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Lorenzo Senni - Scacco Matto Music Album Reviews

The Italian electronic producer and arch conceptualist finds a new flamboyance in astoundingly ornate, song-like pieces of deconstructed trance and video-game chirps.

To promote Scacco Matto, his first album for Warp Records, Lorenzo Senni challenged his fans to a virtual game of chess. With a penchant for deconstruction and a back catalog defined by monochrome palettes of icy sawtooth waves, the Italian electronic musician does seem like the kind of guy who’d be handy at the game. The rules are fixed but the outcome is unpredictable; within extremely narrow parameters, players can display flair, cunning, and subterfuge.
Scacco Matto, which is Italian for checkmate, is the product of self-imposed limits and rules. The writing process was a back-and-forth volley, according to Senni, with every action followed by a reaction, as he deliberately countered his own moves in a knotty one-player game. The basic material remains familiar—gated synth tones arranged in taut melodies and spindly arpeggios—but Senni has found a new flamboyance in these astoundingly ornate, often song-like pieces.
The Milan-based artist has been working within strict limitations since 2012’s Quantum Jelly, the record that seeded his idea of “pointillistic trance”: a mirage of a familiar genre constructed from the “Super Saw” preset of a Roland JP8080 synthesizer, with no drums to anchor the beat, but big drops for that euphoric release. When Senni joined Warp with 2016’s Persona EP, he added flesh to those bare bones by introducing himself as the “rave voyeur”: a bright-eyed, clean-living soul who gets his late-night fuel from energy drinks and observes our hedonism with calculated interest. Now he leads us gently away from the dancefloor to a more orderly setting, a manicured garden of synthetic topiary and rococo fancies. “Dance Tonight Revolution Tomorrow” is the most relaxed Senni has sounded in a long time; a ponderous melody line makes its way across a grid of synthetic pizzicato strings which pluck-pluck-pluck in tidy formation. It’s a simple phrase, immediately memorable, but over seven and a half minutes Senni keeps finding subtle ways to build tension while barely moving.

“Canone Infinito,” which was originally commissioned for the corridors of an intensive care unit in Bergamo, takes the refined ambience to the extreme. A sad melody ebbs and flows in an endless looping musical round—think Pachelbel’s Canon for furloughed ravers—and the undulating arpeggios feel like a portal to a lost world of straight-backed courtiers and gilded harpsichords. But “Canone Infinito” also points to a long-established link between classical music and trance, which has repurposed plenty of concert hall hits for peak-time euphoria (as established by William Orbit’s ’90s spin on Barber’s Adagio for Strings and its remix by Dutch DJ Ferry Corsten).

Elsewhere, Senni makes this connection through tiny gestures: a few bars of hands-in-the-air piano followed by stabs of harpsichord-like synth, buzzing and metallic, on “XBreakingEdgeX.” There’s a further classical/electronic reference within the squeaky melodies of “THINK BIG” and “Discipline of Enthusiasm,” which recall the 8-bit Bach and Tchaikovsky that once blared from primitive video-game chips.

It speaks to Senni’s increasing dexterity as an electronic auteur that all of this simply makes sense together; his themes and reference points cohere smoothly, right through to the cover art. The image, titled “Zuma #30,” was shot by photographer and conceptual artist John Divola in 1977 as part of a project documenting the dilapidation of an oceanfront house in Malibu. Seen through a window, one of those perfect Californian sunsets burns gold and orange beyond the white walls of the interior, which have been covered in thick black dots of spray paint. Was this an act of vandalism? Or some kind of manic meditation? Either way, it’s a retina-searing image of creativity born of limited means.

Checkmate, the game’s final, winning move, is the chess position in which the king is doomed to be captured. It’s a frustrating quirk of chess that you don’t actually get to capture him—the inevitability of the result is enough to wrap up the game. Senni, so comfortable surfing his endless trance builds, surely thrives in these moments. With Scacco Matto he sweeps the tournament to become a grandmaster of unresolved tension.
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