This is an extremely oddball record. XXXX is electro-improv surrealism in which individual pieces don’t make sense but the entire piece sort of does. The music crafted by the quartet of keyboardist Michael Wollny, saxophonist Emile Parisien, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Christian Lillinger grows from chaotic to ominous to uplifting over the course of 10 seamless tracks. It sounds like a studio construction, but it’s actually a live album, quilted from wholly improvised performances recorded at a Berlin club in late 2019.
Everything—Parisien’s soprano saxophone, Lefebvre’s electric bass, Lillinger’s percussion—is washed in electronics. Wollny may be known as a pianist, but he sticks almost exclusively to synthesizers here, and some of the sounds he creates are really weird. “Songs” run into one another, making one continuous thread. They’re so unorthodox they don’t need titles, but titles they have, and most of them are film and literary references. “Somewhere Around Barstow” (a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) layers processed sax, pulsating bass and synth lines, and flattened percussion. “Dick Laurent Is Dead” (a quote from David Lynch’s film Lost Highway) pins a threatening atmosphere and skittering drums under Parisien’s wild soloing, which approaches the saxophone freakout that Bill Pullman’s character performs in the movie.
On “Too Bright in Here” (a quote from Blade Runner), Wollny’s overlapping synth parts evoke the retro-futuristic feel of Vangelis’ soundtrack. Elsewhere are arhythmic and atonal patterns, sax and synth engaging in birdsong, and a slight detour into EDM. It’s like a mashup of free jazz, sci-fi, and 8-bit video game noises. On “Find the Fish” (a gag from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life), the band goes soft, a plaintive sax blowing over a twinkling synth. And on “Michael vs. Michael” (a reference to the Halloween slasher-movie franchise), an electronic nightmare fueled by a synth bass pulse, Wollny plays piano chords briefly and the guys sound like they’re about to bust into a Bon Jovi tune. XXXX is bound to be one of the strangest albums of 2021. Also one of the most addictive.