Audio Obscura – Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene

One of the earliest things I remember of the COVID-19 pandemic was how quiet the skies became. We live on a corridor that runs out of Heathrow, less than fifty miles south of us, and the unmistakeable drone of jet engines or the graceful plumes of parallel contrails, slowly dissipating behind an airliner, were part of the sonic and visual focal points of our skies. 

I find myself returning to this recollection again when listening to ‘Three Sisters’ from Neil Stringfellow’s new Audio Obscura album. In ‘Three Sisters’, Francisco Cantú reads a story about his own lockdown experiences. He too notices the quietened skies and the sudden drop of air traffic by up to 95% as he contemplates the failure of the crops he tries to grow during lockdown. Where his forebears might have known instinctively how to work the land, Cantú watches as each of his crops – each one an ancient species common to North America – fails. It seems to underline, in a detached, almost resigned way, how little we understand of so much of that which sustains us. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene’s focus is squarely placed upon the proven reality that humankind has created the singularly destructive destiny we are now living through; whereas, at other points in Earth’s history, nature has wrecked devastation on our planet, setting in motion massive evolutionary changes and sculpting the way our home looks, the Anthropocene is entirely manmade. Even pandemics like COVID-19 are singled out in the words written by Stringfellow’s chosen experts, pre-eminent authorities on the Anthropocene like Professors Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, as symptoms of what we have wrought. 

For Stringfellow, the motivation to produce this album came from parenthood. Like a lot of us, the introduction of children into your life gives you pause to think and reflect about the world that they will inherit. In Stringfellow’s case, this set in motion a three-year process of developing the album, seeking permission to use texts, gathering samples of the likes of Greta Thunberg and choosing narrators and collaborators. Its release on the eve of Halloween is appropriate, for this is likely the most unsettling, chilling thing you will experience this weekend. 

Presented with an unflinching gaze upon the state of the world, how this came to be, and the tipping point we find ourselves at – or more than likely already beyond – Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene is a contemplative sequence of fifteen pieces. Skipping electronics, eerie birdsong, delicate strings are Stringfellow’s chosen backdrop for narrations by Cantú, Anders Harboe, Julia Blackburn, Simon Medley and others. Each piece is draped in either mournful texture or a sense of violence – fractured sounds, broken rhythms, cycles of abrasive dissonance. The effect, on pieces like ‘Welcome To The Anthropocene’ or the plaintive ‘Magpies’ is arresting; at times an aggressive tonality seems to shake you violently out of your complacency, quickening your pulse and giving genuine shivers. 

It is the messages that are important here. Stringfellow’s role is thus that of the curator, creating the conditions for these messages to reach your ears, often in the most brutal and direct of ways. The album was concluded in lockdown, and we hear snippets of BBC broadcasts from the summer, when lockdown panic seemed to be receding and the forgotten – or, as is the actual case, linked – virus was further down the headlines; where the focus on ecological disaster once more became our focus. Wildfires ravaged vast tracts of land, another species lurched closer to extinction, and so depressingly on and on. Nothing had changed; we were just looking elsewhere, and that rather sums up our collective attitude to impending environmental doom. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene borrow its title from the classic novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Like the way that Márquez’s book peeled back the layers of life story of its protagonists, Stringfellow’s album does something similar with the Anthropocene, explaining its origins and painting an anguished picture of its irreversibility. Unlike Márquez’s book, however, there is no dark humour at play here; no one falls out of a tree trying to rescue a parrot. In Stringfellow’s case, the character saws down the tree, murders the parrot and thus proceeds to take a blowtorch to an ancient rainforest. It presents a damning indictment of humankind’s legacy, and the worst of all possible gifts to our children. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene by Audio Obscura was released October 30 2020. 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2020 Further. 

Audio Obscura – Self Isolation Tapes

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, Etsy took down a t-shirt design emblazoned with the words ‘I Survived Coronavirus’ on the grounds that it was poor taste amid the progress of the disease. We are only four months into this – whatever this will eventually become – and despite government plans to try and progress toward a return to normality, when I think of that t-shirt I’m reminded chiefly of Captain Darling’s line at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth: ‘We lived through it! The Great War, 1914 – 1917!’

So it may also be that releasing music made at this point in isolation, when we could well just be at the start of something that, unlike Blackadder, runs and runs and runs (I’m thinking The Archers, perhaps), may also prove to be similarly premature. Fortunately, amid the slew of self-indulgent self-isolation releases are some genuine gems, and of these is Norfolk-based Neil Stringfellow’s Audio Obscura release, Self Isolation Tapes.

Electronic musicians, as a rule, have never had a problem with self-isolation of course. Theirs is a life of relative solitude, and so it is often hard to see what’s different between music made before isolation, during, and how it might sound when things return to whatever normal we’ll face after this. In Stringfellow’s case, a precedent for the sounds here could be found on his June 2019 Bibliotapes-released imaginary score for George Orwell’s 1984. I’m not prone to self-quoting, but this is how I concluded that piece: ‘Something about the way that Stringfellow has crafted these pieces seems to simultaneously remind us of the unflinching horror of daily life … while also presenting a sense of resignation and dismay that this is the world we currently occupy.’ I’m not saying that this is prescience on my part; more that Stringfellow’s music already seemed to be perfectly suited to dystopia, and so it goes that these seventeen pieces (plus three remixes) are perfectly suited to the current bleak outlook.

Talking of bleakness, not for nothing does Stringfellow include a track nodding in the direction of another savage work of fiction (or is it, now, biographical?) – Albert Camus’s The Plague, a depiction of a highly infectious disease wreaking devastation on an Algerian port. ‘Life In Oran’ is an unsettling listen amid unsettling pieces, beginning with the sounds of Stringfellow’s children playing innocently, which he then frames with murky pulses, dread-ridden haunted tones and a general sense of urgency and insistence. Stringfellow’s children appear again on ‘Each Day The Radio…’, calling for his attention against a backdrop of the daily news stories charting the progress of COVID-19 on the radio. (As an aside, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like the daily governmental proclamations feel a bit like something from 1984.)

Fortunately, Self Isolation Tapes isn’t a wholly bleak listen – it just mostly is. For example, buried deep in the track ‘Ghosts, Dusk, Decay’ is a solitary, tentative, almost hopeful synth note which appears fleetingly, only for the track to return to more discordant territory by the end; elsewhere, ‘Quiet World’, one of the shorter tracks here, is a piece floating forth on a delicate, soothing ambience. The pair of tracks ‘The 33rd Of April’ and ‘The 44th Of May’ may be titled with sardonic humour, but are presented with brooding textures and muted beats that become sonic approximations of industrial, noxious soundscapes or the fading broadcasts of horror soundtracks heard across post-apocalyptic wastelands.

‘One Day I’ll Grow Nostalgic For These Days’ is one of the most memorable pieces here, containing wistful piano and scratchy little sounds, a little like static coming from an old radio transmission. Here you find little melodic lines that seem to belong elsewhere, stuttering vocal segments and pretty bird song, a sparse rhythm outlining the weird sense of nostalgia embedded in the piece’s title.

It is a collection that is necessarily dark, even in the context of Stringfellow’s work. But perhaps it’s worth returning to ‘Life In Oran’ to put this all in context. Alongside the more negative moments are the interjections of real life – washing up, maybe, along with other quotidian tasks. Initially these throw you off and confuse you, but between those sounds and Stringfellow’s kids playing, they serve to remind you that life does indeed go on, even in the strangest of circumstances. Long after this is over, these sounds will be our reminder of how we felt while COVID-19 took its toll on us, with Self Isolation Tapes a diaristic time capsule into collective self-isolation.

Self Isolation Tapes by Audio Obscura was released Friday April 24 2020.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Audio Obscura – Nineteen Eighty-Four

bib03 1984 front final

The third cassette release in the Bibliotapes label’s pairing of iconic books to music finds Norwich’s adaptable electronic sound artist Audio Obscura (Neil Stringfellow) providing a soundtrack to George Orwell’s chillingly accurate Nineteen Eighty-Four, released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the its publication.

To be clear, this is not an opportunity for Stringfellow to cover, or even offer an alternative to, the (controversial) soundtrack put together by Eurythmics for the movie released in the year that the book was set in; this is about interpreting the actual text through the medium of completely newly-imagined music, and, a bit like a media-controlled slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, for the purposes of this we should profusely deny the existence of said film.

What that means is that his accompaniment to the daily, mandatory ritual of venting and screaming in collective anger on ‘Two Minutes Hate’ is presented as a bleak, primal, dissonant noisefest set to a insistent post-industrial beat; the pieces soundtracking the scenes depicting Winston, the book’s protagonist, and his attempts to wilfully evade surveillance and the controlling hand of the Party are freighted with both a pastoral, naturalistic serenity and a sort of nagging tension, filled with mournful strings and birdsong; the scenes set inside Room 101 are laced with a nagging, slow-motion sense of foreboding (and the displaced voice of Frank Skinner).

In Stringfellow’s hands, the haunting familiarity of ‘Oranges And Lemons’ is presented twice, first as a shimmering, gauzy memory resplendent in childhood innocence, and later laced with harshly-processed impending operatically-voiced doom, a vestigial scrap of something that didn’t get fully processed in a memory hole.

Something about the way that Stringfellow has crafted these pieces seems to simultaneously remind us of the unflinching horror of daily life that Orwell predicted in his dystopian musings, while also presenting a sense of resignation and dismay that this is the world we currently occupy – and one that we have willingly submitted to.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by Audio Obscura is released on June 8 2019 by Bibliotapes.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.