Mariel Roberts is a Brooklyn-based cellist, known for her many collaborations and her free-spirited approach to blending classical formalism with improvised gestures. Armament is the follow-up to her 2017 solo album Cartography and her involvement with the amorphous, ever-changing Numinous ensemble, who released the album The Grey Land last year.
Armament consists of four pieces – two relatively short, and two longer – that find Roberts using pedals and other interventions to disrupt the ordinarily bucolic sound of the cello. While there are undoubtedly moments here where light seems to shine through, the overarching feeling is one of unsettling disquiet. In this way, it feels like an album perfectly suited to today’s disrupted world, even though it was recorded before our lives were restricted.
Running through these four pieces is an intense and ominous rumble. That bassy foundation layer ebbs and flows, but it is the element that stays with long after the concluding moments of ‘Arrow’ have dissipated into silence. The cello is known for a certain maudlin, mournful disposition, but in Roberts’ hands it takes on a amplified, darkened, brooding quality, its recognisable qualities displaced and refracted through the effects pedals she uses.
During the seventeen-minute ‘Hoard’ we hear that technique at perhaps its most complete, featuring moments of swirling, squalling dissonance where you can hear the physical pressure she is placing on the strings; passages are looped and processed into ruminative, unswerving drones that feel like long, undulating echoes, in time phasing into themselves to create nauseating microtonal skew; outlines of plaintive, uncertain melodies float overhead, becoming layered into a semblance of a string quartet yet with only one player; playful pizzicato sections create a levity, only to be crushed beneath aggressive swipes at the strings; heavily distorted sections buzz with a juddering, irrepressible, impenetrable death metal dirge. At one point, the cello ceases to be recognisable at all, become a warped, fluctuating electronic arpeggio full of brusque edges and violent energy. For this all to happen in one single episodic piece is an indication of Roberts’ creative mind in overdrive.
This is not a comfortable listen. It possesses very little that we might come to expect from an album created using the cello. So unrecognisable is the venerable instrument at times that if she had explained it was made entirely using tape loops or processed electronics, its foundation instrument would never have been known. Roberts describes the origins of the title as reflecting back the combative times we live in, where seemingly innocuous, innocent things are swept up alongside more purposefully hateful gestures as part of an antagonistic, aggressive cultural shift. In this sense, Roberts’ techniques and interventions are both her shields and her weapons, making Armament a powerfully incisive statement delivered in the form of a beautiful, unpredictable, mesmerising noise.
Armament by Mariel Roberts was released February 5 2021 by figureight.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2021 Further.