To Rococo Rot's first proper album in six years (their sixth overall) finds the veteran "listening electronica" trio returning refreshed and reinvigorated, after the rather staid, perhaps overly-familiar Hotel Morgen, with their loosest, least electronic work to date. Recorded at Faust's studio in rural Southern Germany (the pioneering Kraut outfit's Jochen Irmler plays a self-made organ on the extended ambient closer "Fridays"), Speculation frequently approximates the sound of a live band playing in a room together, which is reportedly not far from the truth. Not that this is a full about-face into acoustic music: indeed, the record opens with a stiff, machine-calibrated pulse, though its dull precision merely forms a baseline anchor against which "Away"'s instrumental elements -- a plodding bass vamp, restrained hi-hat drumming, spindly guitar -- begin to slowly, steadily stretch away. For the most part, electronics serve primarily to add textural nuance to the live instrumentation that gives these cuts their musical meat; there are sometimes percussive or simple melodic loops present, but it's not usually clear (nor particularly pertinent) whether they were played or programmed. Especially on the album's first half, there's a newfound emphasis on groove, with the group settling into and briefly exploring one relaxed, supple vibe after another -- the rippling, circular "Horses" and the buoyant, marimba-led "Forwardness" are particular standouts -- sometimes calling to mind the soft-edged indie-funk of Fujiya and Miyagi (thanks largely to Stefan Schneider's nimble, economical bass playing), with a generous, organic give-and-take rendering the frequent comparisons to their alphabetical peers Tortoise more apt than ever. After a short, disruptive burst of squelching and the sparser, more rigid paranoid disco of "Working Against Time," Speculation winds down with a handful of less direct, more abstract pieces more comparable to TRR's earlier work ("Place It" in particular wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Amateur View), though here, too, there's a free-floating looseness, verging on clutter at times, that marks a clear break from their formerly pristine sonic and structural precision. The aforementioned "Fridays," a ten-minute scuttle-and-drone fest, marks arguably the album's greatest departure, even though it may not lead anywhere in particular. As always with these guys, the journey is the destination and the process is the experience; as studied or sophisticated as the ideas behind some of these sounds might be, it's an utterly simple pleasure that they've continued to find new moods and modes to experience along with us.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman