The Baltika Years is like archived field recordings from inside the mind of it’s creator. It’s a collection of snapshots taken on a Tandy Deskmate computer. Primitive sound, melody, noise, and sampled voices that come together to create a collage of psychosis. Brooklyn’s Software label owner Daniel Lopatin received these tracks on cassette back in 2013 from Ben Zimmerman himself. Lopatin went through and culled through hours of music, connected the musical thru- lines, and created a compilation of electronic music that is as outsider art as it comes. It’s compelling with little attention span. There’s new ideas to move onto before the current idea can get an opinion formed about it. From chopped voice to baroque piano pieces, to gritty drum ‘n bass, The Baltika Years is a steady flow of ideas and emotions that are gone before you know they’re there, like ghosts of computer music’s past.
There’s not much to find about Ben Zimmerman. I hadn’t ever heard of him until just a month or so ago when I’d read about his release on Software called The Baltika Years. The two tracks released prior to that album’s release were heavy on drum ‘n bass, with a very lo fi vibe. If the whole record was going to be like that then I was in. I preordered the album immediately. My first impressions of the album once it arrived were a bit on the indifferent side. I could appreciate what the guy had done. So many ideas and motifs on opening track(and whole first side) “Phyllis”. It’s 21 minutes of different moods, movements, and expression that just on a cursory listen it does feel a bit scatterbrained. After a couple of listens the music begins to show some nuance. Each bit of the track feels every bit a part of an overall whole, as opposed to a guy randomly recording these insane, individual pieces. At times the music feels like a score to some old NES game, something played in the middle of the night, alone in your bedroom. The Tandy Deskmate was a primitive beast(even back in 1992) that required three floppy disks just to run the operating system, so there’s good reason for the lack of texture and fidelity in the music. But had this music been recorded in a expensive studio I really think something would’ve been lost along the way.
Side two opens with the quiet “For Mimi Pt. 1” and continues on through similar motifs clear through to “For Mimi Pt. 5”, at which point things get very experimental, moving through a group of sound collages and noise. “The Space Jack Hummer” and “Grumble Grumble” are quieter affairs with an incidental music vibe to them.
Side three opens with the industrial noise track “Redecorated Proto-Computations”. For the limitations he dealt with regarding the Tandy Deskmate, by this time Zimmerman seems like he was comfortable with the confines of this computer. “Da Chopp” is what Trent Reznor would sound like soon enough, but not nearly as primitive sounding. There’s a great mix of experimentalism and beat-based tracks here. It’s as if he had mastered the machine and was letting it do his bidding.
“Now I Am Numb” leads to side four and his masterpiece “Pausebreak pt. 1”. It has a slinkiness quality to it that gives you the feeling of NIN recorded on a shoestring budget. “Pt. 1” through to “Pt. 6” flow nicely, like a mini-suite into the mind of a guy with a lot to convey. “Pausebreak pt. 1” through “Pausebreak pt. 6” really shows the creative leaps and bounds Zimmerman made through the years.
The Baltika Years isn’t for everyone. It’s primitive, scattershot, and at times rather confounding. But if you stick with it there are rewards to be had. I think Daniel Lopatin and Software have done a great job of archiving and presenting the world of Ben Zimmerman to us. It’s this dense and grainy gallery piece that needs to be heard and reheard. More than anything, it’s a fascinating walk into the mind of Ben Zimmerman. A musical diary of sorts. A lo fi journey into 8-bit breakbeats and pixelated memories.
9.2 out of 10