California Dreaming: The Underlying, by sound artist Bethan Kellough and light breaker, by the anonymous venoztks, offer two very different sonic impressions of California.
For Kellough’s contribution to Touch’s Displacing subscription service, that impression was informed by field recordings made at the edge of Salton Sea, not far from the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mexico border. We hear birds, insects and a gently unfolding natural ambience, but we also hear an undercurrent of something darker – the drones and white noise from a nearby geothermal power station. The power source, heralded as one of several sustainable alternatives to traditional oil and gas, is nevertheless obtrusive and impactful on the environment that surrounds the power plant.
Kellough’s sleight of hand is to take those two sets of sounds – the delicate vibrancy of nature and the omnipresent hum of the power station as she approaches it – and augment them with a sensitive arrangement of sounds that somehow resonate much closer to the choruses of birds and insects than the mechanical interjections of the power stations.
light breaker is the latest missive from venoztks, an artist who doesn’t so much operate at the margins but within the interstitial frequencies of shortwave radio. The fifty-minute piece that light breaker consists of (‘Indent’) is structured from captured radio recordings – voices overheard as fragmentary mid-conversation non sequiturs, howling white noise, brittle static and resonant bass sounds that ebb and flow as menacing slow-motion pulses. The effect is like listening to an intense analogue synthesiser improvisation, but everything you hear came from the radio and the manipulation of its dials.
As well as being an intriguing, absorbing listen from the outer edges of found sound, the album also acts as a highly effective sonic screen. I found myself listening to this while undertaking an array of tedious domestic chores, where the barrage of abrasive, sculpted sounds and found drones also provided a useful means of drowning out the tedious mumbly hip-hop music that my wife was playing far too loudly elsewhere in the house.
The Underlying by Bethan Kellough was released August 27 2021 by Touch. light breaker by venoztks was released August 26 2021.
On Sunday August 22 2021 I flew for the first time since before the pandemic. A short flight to Edinburgh was something that I’d have done, before, fairly often, usually accompanied by things to review. It occurred to me a few days before that I’d need to plan what to listen to in the air, an active decision over what to listen offline after spending most of the pandemic period constantly online, with access to anything. It felt a lot like travelling as a teenager, where I’d pack my Walkman and choose a bunch of tapes to haul around with me.
I decided to trawl through recent Bandcamp additions – purchases I’d made or promos I’d been sent – and that formed the basis of my in-flight entertainment. While in Edinburgh I visited Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh’s Song Of The Union at the Robert Burns Memorial near Calton Hill.
Take-off: CARL STONE – NAMIDABASHI
Carl Stone’s contribution to Touch’s brilliant Displacing subscription series translates roughly as Bridge Of Tears and was recorded for Radio Free Nakano in his Tokyo base. The 15-minute piece is one of fragile momentum, seeming to rush forth and build into a sort of suppressed motorik groove while retaining an effortless, dreamy levity. Released May 28 2021 by Touch.
In-flight: LISTENING LANDSCAPES – LL#1 (MUSIC FROM RIVER DERWENT) / RIVER DERWENT SOUNDSCAPES
Two 2021 releases from Dan Davies, both recorded using the sounds of the river Derwent in Derbyshire. Both illustrate Davies’ approach to taking field recordings and responding to them with additional composition for a diverse array of instruments, or leaving them poignantly unadorned. As such, these releases straddle the tranquility of listening to water and wind sounds (River Derwent Soundscapes) with delicately composed accompaniments (on LL#1) that are both mournful, vibrant and often noisy. Released March 28 2021 / May 6 2021.
Simon Proffitt’s work under the Carnedd Aur alias differs from his usual solo output as Cahn Ingold Prelog and The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor by opting for more of an intentionally accessible output. Originally intended to be a body of work that his parents might recognise as something vaguely adjacent to electronic pop, the project instead became an engaging leftfield project whose titles were all inspired by different sub-species of beetles, with a sound that’s pure insectoid minimal acid-inflected techno. Released August 6 2021 by superpolar Taïps.
Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Art Festival is a thought-provoking seven-channel sound art work installed in the Robert Burns Monument near Calton Hill. For the piece, Ogboh recorded versions of Burns’ poignant ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung by twenty-seven Europeans living in Scotland, one from each of the member states of the European Union that the UK left in January 2021. His work has a subtle power as you sit in the Burns Monument and listen to the interwoven voices singing atop one another; being of Scottish descent, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has always had subtle, stirring poignancy for me; heard in the context of a political work swirling and echoing around the circular space, its maudlin outlook is deeply unsettling. The day after I visited, I found myself walking past the building again. I could hear the plaintive voices wafting sadly into the aether, like ephemeral vapours of what once was. Song Of The Union runs to August 29 2021.
Take-off / in-flight: JAMES MAINWARING – MYCORRHIZA
Saxophonist James Mainwaring occupies a sort of indeterminate zone between improvisation and composition. His latest album for Discus is titled after the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi and its 13 pieces carry a similar sense of integration between the instrumentation. The signature piece is ‘Komorebi’, which features Mainwaring’s sax alongside mournful strings and field recordings of birds made near the house where he grew up, an extra level of significance when you learn that the house is scheduled to be demolished as part of the HS2 construction project. On ‘Statues’, which begins as an understated ballad and ends as a free and urgent piece, Mainwaring’s playing nods reverentially in the direction of Paul Desmond; ‘Globe’, on the other hand, makes an unexpected left-turn into synthesiser minimalism and insistent post-rock, angular musings. Released Juy 13 2021 by Discus Music.
In-flight / landing: ANNA MEREDITH – BUMPS PER MINUTE: 18 STUDIES FOR DODGEMS
Bumps Per Minute was Somerset House resident composer Anna Meredith’s contribution to the London venue’s entertaining DODGE experience, which closed on August 22 2021. Though most people just went for the nostalgia of riding an old fairground ride after a few cocktails, every hour, Meredith and sound artist Nick Ryan would subvert the traditional dodgem ride so that every bump or collision would trigger a different one of her specially-written compositions. The companion album includes those 18 compositions played all the way through; it might lack the chaotic randomness of the ride experience, but it nevertheless carries a decent approximation of what it was like to laugh uproariously, half-cut on over-priced cocktails, as you careered around the track accompanied by a skipping soundtrack that felt like a malfunctioning player piano tackling Don Dorsey’s Main Street Electrical Parade music through an 8-bit computer. Released July 15 2021.
“I’m an instinctive kind of person who sees things in people that other people don’t see. I hear things that other people don’t hear and don’t think are important until many years later, when they finally hear them or see them themselves. By then I’m someplace else.” – Miles Davis, Miles – The Autobiography
It’s tempting to view the modern jazz scene of the late-1980s and early 1990s as a barren, inhospitable place. The combination of ubiquitous digital keyboards, omnipresent clean bass lines and sharp production in place of the raw energy of earlier versions of the jazz form gave the genre a sort of dryness that became a shorthand for elevator music.
Miles Davis, adaptable though he always was to what jazz could be, took a while to adapt to what the 1980s represented. He started the decade emerging from retirement, meaning that when he returned, it took a while for his breath to reach its full potential again, while recurring bouts of pneumonia threatened to – and and ultimately did – take his signature style away forever. Nevertheless, Davis looked around and found himself a place, whether in the way that he took Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ or Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and made them his own on You’re Under Arrest (1985), or his seminal late-career work with Tommy LiPuma and Marcus Miller, his creative friendship with Prince or the recently-exhumed Rubberband sessions from 1985. Davis, to paraphrase the master of punchy epithets himself, remained as relevant as a motherfucker.
Merci Miles!, cringey title to one side, captures all of these bold aspects of Davis in his literal twilight moments. Recorded at the Vienne Jazz Festival in southern France on July 1 1991, Davis would be dead less than three months after he performed this concert with his group. There’s no weakness in his playing, no less energy, no less enthusiasm for the material or his art; no trace at all of these being among Davis’s last breaths.
The setlist drew from what was Davis’s most recent album at that point, 1989’s Marcus Miller- produced Amandla, and You’re Under Arrest. The material from the former is delivered with a gentle, lyrical crispness, while his duetting with the group’s alto saxophonist – Kenny Garrett, who easily gets as much solo time as Davis across this set, if not more – evokes the spirit of some of his vital sparring with sax players in the bebop era. Both ‘Amandla’ and ‘Hannibal’ here have a certain mystique, evoking the African spiritualism that connected the album to 1986’s Tutu.
Also included in the set are two pieces written by Prince, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Jailbait’. Both carry a slick, funky outlook that’s immediately recognisable as Prince compositions, and that Davis initially seems able to engage with, but after a while it feels as if he’s lost interest, leaving the rest of the group – and Garrett in particular – to lead.
The lengthy versions of ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time’ find Davis at his most profound on this date. His playing on these two tracks has a searching, questing quality, finding endless new angles within the distinctive melodies to explore and develop, taking two instantly familiar pieces down intriguing new pathways. Considering Davis was forever prickly about playing signature moments from his own catalogue, he doesn’t seem to have any such issue with playing these two pieces, raising them to the status of contemporary standards.
Key to the sound of pieces like ‘Wrinkle’, later to emerge on the Rubberband album, is the rhythm section of bassist Foley, second bassist Richard Patterson and drummer Ricky Wellman. On ‘Wrinkle’ you hear the trio pivot sharply from elastic funk to frantic, white-hot runs. Foley’s playing deserves special mention on this date – his approach was to play an octave higher than expected, allowing him to riff like he’s playing an electric guitar. Despite its integral positioning in this set, Foley himself had been self-critical of his playing literally up to these last few concerts with Davis. Like so many stories you read of Davis giving nurturing advice to his young players, he had suggested to Foley that he try to play less; the result was space and room to hear the expressiveness of his playing. The group was rounded out by young keyboard player Deron Johnson, who manages to give the normally stale-sounding digital equipment of the period as much a sense of resolute firmness as textural colour.
Ashley Kahn’s inclusive liner notes for the album capture what it was like to be around Miles at the end of his days. We learn about his love of foie gras and pig’s feet, his enthusiasm for France and live music, his gratitude humility, and a certain shyness about talking on stage or in public. More poignantly, we hear first-hand accounts from Johnson about his bandleader’s failing health. “The whole inside of my body feels like it’s falling apart,” complains Davis to his new protégé. Despite playing as well as any other point in his career, physically he looks drained, sluggish and worn out on stage at points during the 80-minute Vienne set.
“For me, the urgency to play and create music today is worse than when I started,” wrote Davis at the very end of his 1989 autobiography, smack in the middle of his final career nadir. “It’s more intense. It’s like a curse. Man, the music I forget now drives me nuts trying to remember it. I’m driven to it – go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. And I love that it hasn’t abandoned me; I feel really blessed.”
Merci Miles! Live At Vienne is released June 25 2021 by Rhino. Thanks to Jess and Joe.
All Becomes Desert consists of five exhumed ambient improvisations that Beautiful Pea Green Boat founder Ian Williams recorded in the 1990s. Designed to evoke the wide expanses of desert landscapes, pieces like ‘Atacama’ and ‘Kalahari’ have an Eno-ish soothing dimension in their slowly-evolving progression, but there’s also a sense of mystery and wonder which, for this reviewer, speaks to the idea of landscapes being formed imperceptibly over millennia. The departure comes with ‘Outback’, constructed as a beat-free series of acidic sequences, which makes me feel like I’m on a helicopter ride over vast, undulating natural topographies. Important knowledge for synth nerds: Williams made these recordings on an old Roland Juno 106. Released March 2 2021. (MS)
You may not realise it, but the plants in your local park and garden are all talking to each other. Just beneath the surface lies a kind of underground internet, linking all their roots. This allows them to communicate and thrive in various ways. What’s responsible for these floral subterranean networks? Mushrooms. Or fungi, to be more precise and their long strands of unseen underground mycelia. The wondrous effectiveness of these connections and the beauty to which they contribute above the surface, forms the theme of Polypores’ latest release, Shpongos.
This is at least the 17th album in five years from prolific modular synth enthusiast Stephen James Buckley and Shpongos is a typically ambient, explorative composition. Given the mycological theme, there is clearly a nod to mushroom enthusiast Terrence McKenna. From initial simplistic drones, sounds gradually bubble up into complex, tightly-wound melodies. Tracks like ‘Sweet Rot’ and album closer ‘Exopheromones’ evoke spores drifting in the wind, ready to land and bring new life, where nature had given way to decay. Beautiful, in its own intricate way. Released April 26 2021. (CH)
Things I hear and feel when listening to ‘Pick Me Up-Down’, the opening piece on Cornish composer Simon Dobson’s second album: minimalist cycles that remind me of ‘In C’; widescreen vistas from the opening scenes of a nature documentary; emotional turbulence that oscillates between poignant sadness and joyous optimism; a sort of euphoric dissonance; a delicate synthesiser melody that reminds me of a specific cluster of notes on the soundtrack to the original Teen-Wolf. Such is the way that Dobson’s evocative compositions can spark vivid images and memories, lightly positioned as they are at the meeting place of soundtrack, modern classical music and ambient electronics. ‘Thread’ is among the most overtly electronic of the five long pieces presented here, its twelve-minute layering of slowly-evolving melodies and flute-like timbres being rooted in a sort of spiritual enlightenment and sci-fi wonder; the soaring, string-led chord change that appears out of nowhere at the three-minute mark is impossibly, relentlessly moving. Released May 7 2021. (MS)
Biel Blancafort is a Catalonian electronic music and his new EP for Barcelona’s Modern Obscure Music was inspired by a recurring dream of arriving at a remote, deserted island called Kenoma, named after the Greek word for ‘void’. The six pieces included here are rarely still and always restlessly moving forward, shrouded in atmospherics inching along the tightrope between uncertainty and beauty. On the title track I imagine Blancafort, alone, lying on a patch of barren beach watching storm clouds gathering and dissipating overhead in motion time lapse, the track speeding gently from fragile melodic passages to a delicate house rhythm. At the other end of the island, the gentle piano note clusters of ‘Llar’ fall somewhere between Music For Airports and Satie’s Gymnopédies. An arresting body of work, yet delivered with soothing subtlety. Released May 21 2021. (MS)
A remastered, first-time vinyl pressing of recently-departed New York Fluxus composer and artist Yoshi Wada’s The Appointed Cloud from 1987. The Appointed Cloud was Wada’s first large-scale, interactive installation, featuring a custom-built pipe organ and other instruments controlled by computer, installed in the windowless, cathedral-like Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science in Queens. For the performance recorded on November 8 1987, Wada and other musicians played instruments – bagpipes, timpani, tam-tam – alongside the installation, which was controlled by software developed by La Monte Young acolyte David Rayna. The result was an hour-long set characterised by oscillating drones, skeletal tones and intense, frequently jarring sonic interplay, played at incredibly loud volume. The drones evoke the eternal hum of existence, while percussive crescendos for gong and timpani align Wada’s overtone-rich music with classical tradition. Deep listening rarely sounded so dramatic. Released May 21 2021. (MS)
Sometimes in life you find yourself constructing walls around yourself, often subconsciously. Those structures form through the need for emotional self-preservation, retreat, a desire for safety or just through a need to fend off something that you feel bearing down on you. Some of those walls are temporary and as fragile as an ego; others are like a bunker, as permanent as a concrete cap on an atomic bomb-ravaged atoll.
As 2020 dragged itself without fanfare into 2021, I found myself building a few of those walls. I built those walls using sound – drones, soundscapes, textural ambience, deep listening – played loudly through earphones that allowed me to shut out the rest of the world. These listening sessions were like sonic screens, enclosed spaces that allowed me to breathe freely when life and relationships seemed to want to starve me of oxygen. They were both fleeting (the length of an album, the duration of a single piece, cut-off halfway through to attend to chores, teenagers, kittens) and enduring, often staying with me long after whatever I was listening to had finished; though these pieces typically lacked discernible rhythms, they allowed my mind and imagination to dance wildly in a cathartic nightclub, while also blocking out the incessant, relentless, repetitive sound of gloomy, compression-heavy YouTube hip-hop videos played at excruciating volume from our lounge.
Such was the case with Stardust, the sonic screen that seems to have provided the hardest exterior of all the things that I’ve listened to of late. Consisting of eleven pieces derived from dubplates of sounds recorded made by Faith Coloccia on Washington state’s Vashon Island between 2015 and 2018, these sounds were then processed and augmented by avant garde turntablist Philip Jeck in Liverpool last year as lockdown rolled its way toward the bleakest of winters. It falls somewhere between a collaboration characterised by an absence of direct collaboration, and a sound art call-and-response.
Not that Stardust is some sort of pastoral, easy-listening ambient fluff. Its architecture is characterised by a fretful, fidgety, wandering core, flitting between passages of wordless vocal murmuring and churning, antsy noise loops. And yet, for all its challenging adornments, as a whole this album is curiously soothing. Sounds and loops begin to slip out of reach, typically just as you’ve become comforted by their presence, and there is this continual sense of elusiveness, of sounds too fleeting to endure. It would be easy to be stressed by a piece like ‘Creosote’, which embodies all of these facets – and which moves seamlessly between the pretty and the pretty ugly – but instead it becomes weirdly peaceful; so much so that you drop this as a dirty sound bomb over a warzone and weapons would be laid down and ceasefires signalled.
Pieces like the title track have a gently swirling, endarkened motion, like listening to the sound of debris funnelled rapidly skywards after an explosion, yet a certain muted, choral stateliness seems to reveal itself as the piece progresses. ‘Archaea’ has some of the same qualities, its reverb-drenched fabric sounding like the dense throb of rush-hour traffic in a tunnel and a Latin hymn heard from outside a cathedral. ‘Mycorrhizae’ is the most wonderfully noisy and challenging piece of the collection, its distorted sonic core prowling into view like an incessant machine and staying richly grubby and enveloping throughout.
There are also moments of delicate levity – ‘Acquire The Air’ inches forward on held tones and brooding, looped spirals which give a sense of contemplation, while ‘Usnea’ has a ringing processed piano refrain that sounds like joyously peeling bells. Perhaps the most surprising moment here is also where Jeck’s presence is least felt – on ‘Speaking Stone’, which is essentially a vehicle for Coloccia’s beguiling, haunting vocal, here pitched somewhere between folk whimsy and dark nursery rhyme (Coloccia recorded while her newborn son was sleeping, so a nursery rhyme isn’t far off the mark). Jeck’s contribution is treacly rich reverb, giving Coloccia’s voice a displaced, otherworldly outlook. The same vocal appears again on the album’s concluding track, ‘Sun’, augmented by febrile sounds heard from an obliterated, broken point off in the distance, or from within the walls that surround me every time I play this captivating album.
Stardust by Faith Coloccia & Philip Jeck was released May 21 2021 by Touch. With thanks to the Minister of Names.
The Incidental Crack is a distance collaboration between Justin Watson (Front & Follow, Gated Canal Community), Rob Spencer (also Gated Canal Community) and Simon Proffitt (Cahn Ingold Prelog, The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor). Avoiding the typical pitfalls of social electrics (a phrase coined by Bovine Life back in ye olde dial-up days of 2000), The Incidental Crack’s approach instead is to juxtapose heavily-disguised quotidian sounds with questioning electronics.
A case in point is ‘The Second Cup Of Tea Of The Day’, the first of the three lengthy tracks on Municipal Music, their second album together (or is that apart?). If that sounds like a strange and perhaps mundane name for a track – even in the context of the not-going-out-not-seeing-anyone-staring-at-these-four-walls tedium of lockdown – consider that I’m pretty sure that its source field recording is less a field recording and more a kitchen recording of the steps required to make the aforementioned second cup of the tea of the day. Those sounds are then harshly processed and skewed to create ominous textures and brooding drones that, were the British Tea Manufacturers Union (possibly made up) to hear this, they might well think that The Incidental Crack are in cahoots with the British Coffee Manufacturers Union (see above) to scare people off drinking tea. Fortunately, while the track brews its way through what I think is running water, a kettle reaching a climactic boiling point and a teaspoon clattering inside a tea cup, it makes a sharp evolution toward searching, entrancing electronics, ending up in a serene territory set to what feels like a twitchy waltz pulse.
Two of the three tracks here follow a similar technique of processing field recordings into obscurity and then layering in outlines of rhythm, sinewy synth sequences, siren-like drones and effects. The result is strangely discomfiting, while the familiarity – howsoever processed – is also weirdly soothing. Take the album’s final piece, ‘Ice-Cream At The Pavilion’. On first inspection, the captured material here – the typical beach-side sounds of waves, a carousel, children playing, fun being had, the sound of skin reddening to a crisp under British sun – should be pleasing to the ear; these are the sounds of childhood, of carefree living, of life before mortgages, anxiety, zoonotic illnesses, social fucking media, existential dread and lockdown. In the six hands of The Incidental Crack, those sounds are twisted, inverted, made nightmarish and sinister, reminding me instead of all the stuff I hated about days spent on the beach in Essex and Kent as a kid – getting dressed beneath a towel, sand, other people, being rubbish at skimming stones into the water – and leaving me precariously unsettled.
Fortunately, the second track – ‘Just Passing Through’ – is somewhat more positive. This is a track relying on volume and fluctuating restlessness to imply a sense of forward motion. Long tones build and fade; drones rise up, get phased and panned across the stereo field; harsh, rapidly-shifting sounds grab your attention and then dissipate; you feel yourself being either pushed or pulled along through some sort of winding, turbulent tunnel toward an unknowable destination (though, according to the sequencing of the tracks, that destination is our nausea-inducing warped beach scene; shudders). Occasionally a tiny little broken melody – a xylophone maybe – reveals itself, adopts a casual exotica breeziness and then just as quickly disappears. It’s a trip full of unbridled energy, like listening to electricity co-operating under duress; that it does this without ever relying on anything so pedestrian as a rhythm to create its suggestion of speed and rapid flight is a testament to this trio’s gleeful sonic adventuring.
Municipal Music by The Incidental Crack is released May 21 2021 by Herhalen.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Josh Hager from Devo for another of my projects, focussed on the Mute label’s STUMM433 boxset. Conversations for that project typically veer quickly into discussions of meditation practice; or, if they don’t directly end up there, we usually find ourselves talking about efforts the artist makes to find peace or a sort of inner silence.
In Hager’s case, he told me about his early experiences after first moving to LA, where he rented himself a loft with no furniture. He may have had no furniture, but Hager had a turntable and an album, The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound, containing two sides of countryside noises – an English meadow and a forest night-scape filled with crickets – made by influential field recordist and early digital sound processor Irv Teibel.
Teibel had spent some of his army years in Stuttgart, where his imagination had been fired up by musique concrète, tape experiments, and spells studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tony Conrad. The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound was the tenth disc in his influential series Environments, which he began in 1969 with a Brighton Beach, NY recording of the shoreline that was then processed through an early IBM computer.
I ended up buying a beaten-up copy of The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound and put it on one Saturday afternoon while the house was occupied by just me and the cats. A couple of minutes in and I was somewhere else, walking the fields and woods of my youth and trying to suppress the notion that, if I hauled myself off the sofa and walked five minutes from my house, I could listen to actual Englishcountryside sounds rather than Teibel’s processed ones. And then something strange happened – the record got stuck. I moved the needle and it got stuck again. And again. And again. I sighed, realising I’d bought one of the most scratched LPs I’ve ever seen but then, as I went to turn the turntable off and put the record away, I became aware that the skipping sounds of pretty meadows had formed an inchoate little rhythmic loop that you could just about dance along to.
I imagine Teibel would have liked Dave Clarkson’s new album for Linear Obsessional, A Pocket Guide To Wilderness – Deep Forests And Dark Woods Of The British Isles. The latest instalment in a series that has included explorations of caves, the shores around Britain and quicksands (who know we had those in this country? In fact, who knew they existed outside perilous scenes in 1980s shows like The A-Team?), Clarkson’s Pocket Guide… series feels like it was directly descended from the Environments releases. His technique is one of processed field recordings, much like Teibel did forty years before, but whereas his approach was to create textural backdrops, Clarkson prefers more extreme alterations.
Take the opening track, ‘Twig Dance’. Here we find Clarkson in the venerable Sherwood Forest using the sampled sounds of twigs snapping and logs being tapped, which he then reworked into a 7/4 rhythm that’s so knowingly reminiscent of ‘Unsquare Dance’ that you expect Dave Brubeck’s distinctive piano to start up at any moment. It’s less psychoacoustic and more psychedelic, like a weird pagan ritual best appreciated through the lysergic fog of foraged ‘shrooms. In contrast, an eight-hour recording session in Delamere Forest from August 2019 ‘Delamere Night Flight’) is largely untouched, until you consider that Clarkson has taken the highlights from that all-nighter and turned it into a comparatively minuscule two-minute edit. (The owl that features prominently on this piece definitely approves.)
Elsewhere, ‘No Easy Way Out’ augments a loop of crunching, trampled undergrowth with ominous sub-bass and a delicate passing cloud of elegiac synth pads to create an uneasy, unsettling feeling, which Clarkson’s accompanying narrative likens to the perilous way out of our shared 2020 experiences. The pastoral, soothing birdsong with which ‘Lifeblood’ commences could have been taken straight from the ‘English Meadow’ side of The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound until it is overtaken by a swelling, fluctuating drone full of wonder and gauzy warmth. The effect is to centre your attention on the natural mystery of the world around us, something that we are all too guilty of ignoring.
‘Mausoleum In The Woods’ uses the pyramid at Norfolk’s Blickling Park as its sonic playground, featuring percussive sounds that Clarkson recorded by striking the railings and stone of the Egyptian revival structure. We also hear the voices of fellow tourists and the omnipresent sound of rushing water, all of which lock together with the percussive samples to form a regimented, clockwork-like rhythm interspersed with intricate, unplaceable detail, befitting an engaging, thought-provoking album (I am chiefly reminded of the devastation of ancient woodland for the sake of HS2) that is as much informed by Clarkson’s fervent imagination as it is his curatorial approach to collecting sounds.
Stuart Chalmers’ Suikinkutsu album for Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat Cuts label opens with a field recording made as Chalmers arrived at the Dowkabottom Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. We hear a car edging noisily over gravel and a fleeting section of The Beautiful South heard from a car stereo. Thereafter we leave the human world far behind, finding ourselves in the subterranean chamber for eight recordings made in the cave on different days between February and May 2020 – which, lest we forget, coincided with the pervasive spread of a virus and the pausing of our freedoms.
Caves aren’t troubled by viruses, but they are deeply impacted by the weather. The sound of water is a major influence on these recordings, both in its natural state within the cave, but also for how Chalmers placed objects – cans, saucepans, gongs, singing bowls – underneath water drips to create percussive sounds and fragile, tentative metallic melodies. The flow of water in the cave was entirely linked to weather patterns above ground – ranging from the wettest month since records began (February 2020) to the driest (May 2020). The recording from February 2 2020 is intense and frantic to the point of Neubaten-esque violence, while those from May are sparse and contemplative, drawing our attention to the dangerous fluctuations in climate that are the hallmarks of the anthropocene.
The album’s title is a reference to a Japanese garden ornament, translating as ‘water harp cave’, which uses dripping water to producing a soothing sound, much like wind chimes. The natural ambience of the subterranean chamber drenches these recordings with rich, gentle reverb, while the unpredictable percussive timbres have a searching, inquisitive restlessness: outlines of melodies form, seem to edge toward completeness, and then go someplace else entirely. The result is strangely moving, the eight cave recordings reflecting – in an embodiment of zen duality – both stillness but also a constant motion, each drip imperceptibly adding to the perpetual wear and shaping of the cave itself. That this process will continue long after humankind has made itself extinct is a perhaps Suikinkutsu’s most impactful, if unintended, observation.
A Pocket Guide To Wilderness – Deep Forests And Dark Woods Of The British Isles by Dave Clarkson was released April 21 2021 by Linear Obsessional. Suikinkutsu by Stuart Chalmers was released April 20 2021 by Fractal Meat Cuts.
If there’s one thing that lockdown has taught us, it’s to appreciate the near-to. Whether it’s a wander through a local wooded copse, the discovery of a shortcut through your local estate, or perhaps a new-found love of ornithology, the last year has revealed hitherto unappreciated details of our close environment. It is the much-needed small bursts of joy that these can bring that Simon Klee celebrates in his latest album, Mandagora.
Like much of Klee’s previous output, this release on the Woodford Halse label showcases his love of nature. Inspired by walks along tributaries and nights spend under the stars in his native Thames Valley, the ten tracks all have their roots in the natural world.
So how does Klee introduce the listener to his paean to nature? Not for him the folksy nurdlings you might expect given the accompanying floral artwork. Instead we get space synths!
Album opener ‘Constant Velocity’ creates bows and arcs that eventually form delicious melodies from which the first squawks of bird chatter emerge, and we’re on our way.
After the first couple of tracks a more organic feel does start to come through. The woodwind sounds of ‘Sky Raider’ are backed by some lovely spacey melodies, evoking early Kraftwerk. And from there things become a bit more unsettling.
Across several of these tracks, we experience the slightly disquieting feeling of being alone in a forest –watched by unseen eyes. Echoey, haunting guitars give way to the chatter of birds and perhaps other, unknown creatures.
We then emerge from the woodland to the sound of wind chimes on ‘Phantom Energy’ and the album picks up pace. Klee likes to skirt the edges of the dance floor and this is also the case on parts of this album. The uptick in pace is enjoyable and is continued through some of the album’s final tracks.
‘Anticrepuscular Rays’ brings a proggy, trancey vibe, before things unexpectedly turn bouncy, fun and electro on ‘Endosymbiosis’. The album closes with its eponymous title track, taking the tempo down a notch or two as the tired traveler unlaces their walking boots and takes a well-earned sip from their flask of herbal tea.
So strap on that Walkman (this is a cassette and digital release) and head off for one more stroll though the countryside, this time with the sounds of Mandragora to accompany and inspire you.
Mandragora by Simon Klee is released May 7 2021 by Woodford Halse
A new album from Downstream Records founder and fan of aliases Damon Vallero, who we last covered when he released last year’s Damaged Textures album under the name Local Sound Developer. Erratic Gestures & Static Instability finds Vallero deploying the quirky Cocoquantus and Plumbutter units from Baltimore synth house Ciat-Lonbarde, whose unique sound-creating interfaces give the album a playful suite of timbres but also more than an affectionate nod in the direction of some of the earliest electronic music experiments. The buzzing topline of ‘Wasp Having A Spa Day’ and its seesawing, wobbly foundation layer wins the prize for the most evocative track of the collection, while ‘Levitation’ has a soothing, contemplative quality ideally suited to a brief moment of calm in the maelstrom of our diurnal existences. Wonderful sounds from St. Albans and another release from Vallero worth spending some quality time with. Released February 5 2021.
THE GREEN KINGDOM – SOLARIA / SWEENEY – MISERY PEAKS (Sound In Silence)
Two new releases from the Athens-based Sound In Silence imprint. The first, from Michigan-based Michael Cottone’s long-running The Green Kingdom project, is a collection of warm, almost folksy ambient soundscapes for electronics and guitar that – to this listener anyway – evokes the subtle optimism that comes with the shift from winter to spring. The details here are what’s important: the eight-minute ‘Arc’ offers a melody that nods in the direction of The Isley Brothers’ version of ‘Summer Breeze’ and ‘Sol 1’ sounds like what happened when Depeche Mode opened the gate to A Broken Frame’s secret garden. The second, Misery Peaks by Australian Jason Sweeney, finds the singer and sound artist offering a ruminative suite of songs over an intricate backdrop of turbulent gestures, modern classical tonalities, harsh industrial noise and sparse, fractured rhythms. ‘Sun’ is the album’s towering highlight, a plaintive love song placed in the context of a constantly-shifting tapestry of sonic events underpinned by a shrouded, submerged pulse. Both released March 27 2021.
GENEVA SKEEN – THE CLAP OF THE FADING-OUT SOUND OF YOUR SHOES (Touch)
Geneva Skeen’s contribution to Touch’s Displacing subscriptionseries finds her using the recorded sounds of Los Angeles from earlier this year and augmenting those with electronic manipulations to form a single piece of episodic, adventurous sound art. Like Chris Watson’s Displacing contribution (Station Chapelle), Skeen’s sounds have a strange, slightly unplaceable otherness. We are told that these sounds originate from LA, but how can we really be sure? What are the critical signifiers of their provenance? What is so distinctive about the hum of a helicopter, a person humming quietly to themselves, what could be the sound of cars driving over joints in a concrete bridge or the rain that makes these sounds sound like LA? This is perhaps the beauty of any field recording taken out of context – they are sounds that need explaining, that need justifying, as if we could not expect to comprehend them otherwise. Put that irreverent psychobabble to one side and what you have is an exciting, vibrant suite of noisy-beautiful sounds that carry a brooding purpose and a dark energy… which I guess is a fairly accurate depiction of LA, actually, now I come to think of it. The Clap Of The Fading-Out Sound Of Your Shoes is another brilliantly evocative chapter in the Displacing story. Released April 2 2021.
A new album arriving through your letterbox from peripatetic Bourneville sonic magician Andrew ‘Sad Man’ Spackman is always a treat. Sidestepping the surprising directional shifts of his last three projects – the oblique radio play Stories From An Island with Francis Lowe for Cue Dot, the claustrophobic Music Of Dreams And Panic for Wormhole World and his soundtrack for silent movie Menilmontant – The Man From S.A.D finds Spackman riffing off the electronic wonkiness that characterised 2020’s genius Daddy Biscuits. More melodic than some of his other releases, for the most part The Man From S.A.D has a cheerful swagger and spring in its step, exemplified by the churning electric forward motion of the standout ‘Finny Feet’ and ‘The Green Opal’. We also find Spackman experimenting with vocal textures and samples across this album, always in typically skewed and playful way (see his brilliantly obtuse soul-inflected block party jam ‘The Shark’). What’s refreshingly omnipresent, though, is his dexterous, restless ability to endlessly hop from one idea to the next without catching breath, an effect that’s a lot like watching Charlie Chaplin in the mesmerising, chaotic but meticulously arranged conveyor belt scene from Modern Times. Released April 23 2021.
SATURNIN SEKTOR – NIGHT ENCOUNTERS (Cruel Nature Records)
Kinda hard to write about this new Cruel Nature album by Genovese electronic music duo Saturnin Sektor without using the expression ‘imaginary soundtrack’ or the superlative ‘John Carpenter-esque’ – mostly because Night Encounters is an imaginary soundtrack and its familiar tonality was inspired by the long shadow that Carpenter’s approach to scoring cast over a pivotal segment of the 1980s movie landscape. So you know the drill: stalking basslines, expressive melodies, resolute drum patterns and a heightened sense of psychological drama, which these ten tracks all have in an abundance. MS and TC (the anonymous minds behind the project) break with the format slightly on ‘Among The Ruins’, which manages to adopt a proggy stance courtesy of some soaring ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ organ chords; at just shy of five minutes, the preceding action in our imaginary movie suggests a heck of a lot of stuff got ruined. Released April 30 2021.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS & BRION GYSIN – WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS & BRION GYSIN
This vinyl-only release from Cold Spring collects together rare recordings of Beat authors William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, drawing together pieces made while they were both staying in Paris in 1970, an October 1982 Burroughs performance from Liverpool’s Centre Hotel, and a series of poetry readings by Gysin from the mix-1960s. Listening to Burroughs’ familiar drawl from the Centre Hotel recordings, there’s a certain deft humour to his newsreader-like delivery which has the audience in uproarious laughter. Some of Burroughs’ racial language is enormously offensive when heard today, but it’s the home recording of his asserting a nihilistic surrender to junk on an extract from ‘The Beginning Is Also The End’ that’s arguably the collection’s most shocking moment.
Gysin’s recordings focus on the development of the cut-up technique, including the instructive tape piece ‘Cut Ups Self-Explained’ which sounds like a lecture on the process until its practical demonstration reveals the splices, leading to words placed out of context, suddenly making no sense, making new shapes and inferences instead. Alongside pieces like ‘Pistol Poem’, wherein the dry sound of a gunshot is looped into a nascent rhythm, Gysin initially appears the more experimental of the two word-innovators, but largely only because the Burroughs performance making up most of this album is relatively linear. The inclusion of three versions of the Burroughs piece ‘Invisible Art’, supported by inchoate found sounds and words, does much to even up the balance. Released May 10 2021.
News stories about climate change are generally coupled with their own distinct imagery. We are now well used to seeing images of, variously, the terrifying silhouettes of forest fires, of cliff faces or ice shelves crumbling into the ocean, of factory chimneys billowing fumes into the atmosphere, of aerial shots of vast, sprawling megacities or images of mute animals acting as a short-hand for extinction. In this context, there is something both depressing and terrifying about the image that Neil Stringfellow selected for the sleeve image of his follow up to last year’s Audio Obscura album, Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene.
Not for Stringfellow these stock images; instead he has chosen something somehow more relatable, more impactful, and more shameful than images that we have become, if not inured to, then certainly used to – a municipal dump, the vast industrialised means of disposing of mankind’s waste en masse, and a row of washing machines, ovens and televisions. The circumstance of their disposal is, of course, not clear, but it is a thought-provoking image nonetheless. Were they replaced because they didn’t fit the household’s aesthetic and changing tastes? Were they replaced because they were no longer working? Could they have been repaired? What will happen to these appliances next? Will they be dismantled, their parts stripped, salvaged and recycled into new appliances? (Unlikely.) Or will they be shipped on vast diesel-powered vessels to distant shores where they will become some other community’s problem? As I said: depressing and terrifying.
Adventures In The Anthropocene is, itself, partly recycled. It includes remixes of tracks by Scanner, Belly Full Of Stars and Rupert Lally; it includes an alternative version of ‘The Clattering Train’ from Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene; it includes a thirty-minute live performance of the original album reworked into a single tapestry. The album also includes five new pieces, including the stunning opening track ‘Komorebi 木漏れ日’, named for the untranslatable Japanese expression for sunlight passing through leaves.
The impact of Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene was perhaps most felt in its afterglow. Stringfellow’s message was both direct, but also subtle. It inspired you to think differently, but its bleak, detached tonality also offered little hope to cling on to. It arrived smack in the middle of the pandemic, where the world felt unexpectedly united, for once. There was a common enemy, a common problem, a need to collaborate across borders to tackle a common threat; a new President was shortly afterwards installed into the White House, and one of his first gestures was to reverse his predecessor’s dismissal of climate change and his conjoined, hateful nationalistic rhetoric. There was a sense of hope: what if this effort to mitigate a virus could be applied to climate change (something, lest we forget, that has the potential to cause many, many more deaths than COVID19)? Fast forward to the release of its (sort of) sequel and things feel like they’ve shifted. Rather than celebrating the speed and efficacy of cross-border vaccine development, it has instead become a geo-political warzone and the embodiment of vaccine-led colonialism (a new book by Peter Hotez, Preventing The Next Pandemic, adroitly deals with this subject). And spend any time in your local English shopping centre or high street the weekend after non-essential retail opened and you will see just how far we haven’t come, being the embodiment of greed and self-centred individualism, not the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit that existed for a lot of 2020.
Adventures In The Anthropocene’s release is, thus, timely. The central live piece, using extensive segments of narrated commentary about what humankind has wrought on this world – including creating the perfect conditions for global pandemics such as COVID-19 – is a useful wake-up call for anyone whose sole focus has been booking a flight to some far-flung destination or queuing for hours outside Primark just to buy some cheap, disposable, unsustainable fashion frippery. There is a significantly larger issue at hand; we may have survived the pandemic, but it is merely a symptom of the bigger war we’re in danger of forgetting about if we don’t act now.
Scanner’s remix of ‘Goodbye Helocene’ at least sounds optimistic. For his mix, Robin Rimbaud has developed a sort of woozy, shimmering, journeying exotica from the bones of the original track, which has the effect of distracting you from its less-than-cheery subject starting point. In contrast, Further. favourite Rupert Lally takes ‘Radio Anthropocene’ off in an appropriately darkened, brooding direction, its plaintive piano and droning backdrop sounding like the final broadcast of a damaged transmitter before the end of the world, while Belly Full Of Stars re-imagine ‘Love Is…’ as a modern classical duet for swirling saxophone and mournful cello set to clipped, inchoate beats.
The album ends with one of Stringfellow’s new pieces, ‘The Last Full Day Of Civilisation’. There is a fragility here, and a sense of pretty, stirring wistfulness. Its delicate, overlapping, chiming music box melodies might sound celebratory, but only in the sense that music played at a funeral is celebratory. To this listener, it wordlessly says, ‘Here lived homo sapiens, who consciously squandered the gift they were given, and in so doing made themselves extinct.’ If that doesn’t make you sit up and take action, then really nothing will, and we’re all doomed to the fate foretold in Stringfellow’s ruminative closing arguments.
Adventures In The Anthropocene by Audio Obscura was released March 4 2021.