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Farmers Manual, "RLA" MEGO

As principal early players in the 90's computer music scene, fetishising digital audio and austere CGI graphics with the best of them, it's fitting that Farmers Manual should be behind RLA, the latest and most uncompromising expression so far of the Merzbox mentality. Technically, RLA is a dual layer DVD9, NTSC, region-free DVD with a running time of three days, 21 hours and 38 seconds. It's as exhaustive as possible a collection of everything to do with Farmers Manual's live shows since 1995: nearly four days of MP3s (from "several artists, but mostly FM and related folks") along with accompanying JPEGs of the shows, their locations, gig flyers, stage passes, press reviews, mailing list write-ups, and even a few movie files. The icing on the cake is that, inserted in a computer's DVD drive, it auto-plays some baffling and unexplained handheld camcorder footage of FM knocking a wall down in a basement studio, then later hanging around in an apartment with a cat.

The MP3s on RLA (the abbreviation stands for "recent live archive") were created from whatever sources FM could find, so the sound quality varies, and some recordings are incomplete. But this is part of the collection's charm, and with around 150 MP3s on the disc, you can forgive the occasional imperfection.

With FM being a largely improvisational group, RLA doesn't feature the same music again and again: each collaboratively improvised performance is sonically and to some extent structurally unique. Though their sound has much in common with the noise-influenced digital crunch producers who followed them, their source material and influences are often broader. Their music is more straight-faced surrealism than aleatoric() violence.

It's impossible to review this release without fixating on the format, but in the packaging-obssessed world of MEGO, that doesn't seem inappropriate. Obviously, being a DVD, and a data DVD at that, RLA is only usable if you have a computer DVD drive, and not a domestic DVD player. But the entire project is available for free download from FM's web site, and new recordings have been added to the site over time (currently around 10 more hours' worth). And if you don't have a decent net connection, or any at all (in which case where are you reading this?), you can legally obtain the music under a "copyleft"-style license, meaning that at least in principle you can ask someone to make you conventional data CDs of the approximately 8GB of data here. I suppose you'd have to ask them very nicely.

RLA is more of an ongoing project than a single artefact. It's an essential resource for existing fans, and as good a place as any for newcomers to learn about this most unique of laptop supergroups. I still haven't finished exploring it. - Andrew Shires

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