Go West! A Rum Music Special From Ireland's Outer Reaches
, April 18th, 2013 05:08
This month, Rum Music heads to the West Of Ireland, currently a fertile land for the production of far-out sounds. Stephen Graham profiles three new albums from the Irish underground, and Daniel Harrison reviews a compilation from the Abandon Reason, who hold mysterious events in derelict car parks...
Gavin Prior, his label Deserted Village, and the shape-shifting folk/Improv group of which he is a part, United Bible Studies, are at the leading edge of the somewhat fragile, very fitful, but often fertile Irish underground/weirdo/non-notated experimental music scene. Constrained by historical (cultural) impoverishment, a media apparatus that's something of a closed shop, an uneven population spread which makes touring difficult, and a lack of any solid material infrastructure in the form of dedicated specialist concert venues and/or substantive public funding, the Irish underground scene survives as a result of the hard work and energy of a few key individuals. They include Prior, Paul Hegarty, Paul Condon, and Vicky Langan, who run labels such as Deserted Village, Dot Dot Dot Music, and Fort Evil Fruit, and put on or have a hand in, in the case of Langan, such nights and festivals as Black Sun and the Avant. Despite the constraints just mentioned, though, a lot of great, heterogeneous underground music has been made in the country, whether it's by international musicians who have been coaxed to perform at a couple of the bigger cities, or by Irish musicians like those just mentioned, or others, such as Cian Nugent, Wreck of the Hesperus or Paul G. Smyth. The three recent albums under review here, all connected by the thread of Prior, are a testament to the richness of that music, showing how motivated individuals making use of levelling digital tools can work against local constraints to produce exciting work with potential for international exposure (albeit within the limited natural contexts of this kind of music).
Gavin Prior - Babbleon Cork
Prior's Babbleon Cork is a wonderful little piece of phonographic sound art. Produced whilst Prior was a resident at The Guesthouse, a 'hub' of art and music in Cork, the album is comprised of sounds recorded by Prior at various locations in the city. Babbleon has a febrile, unpredictable, though curiously lived-in quality. Music-like gestures, such as the Whitehouse-esque squeals of the first minutes which sound alternately like a dog, a small bird, and glass being wiped, all of it evoking distress of one kind or another, emerge out of and are introduced into collaged field recordings of snatched or sustained (and occasionally hilarious) conversations, ambient street noise, a sermon, strange clatters and thuds, pigeons warbling, chiming church bells, and more.
What is intriguing here is the liminal quality of so much of the sounds we hear; are they DSP'd 'field' recordings? Actual audio documentation? Musical narrative built into and alongside the recordings? Hearing is the most uncanny of the senses, and Babbleon exploits this fact well, with its fertile toing-and-froing, up-and-down and along-and-back, between both 'music' and (the sounds of) 'life'. As it turns out, every sound heard on the album is taken from Prior's field recordings, with only minimal EQ being applied to any of them. The 'musical' gestures are therefore effects borne of judicious editing and patchworking. The album, in this way, conjures an ever-shifting dialogue between the abstract and the figurative, the musical and the phonographic, which reveals to its listeners the intense permeability of those apparent opposites.
United Bible Studies - I Am Providence
United Bible Studies is a kind of federal identity under which musicians such as Condon and Prior, Áíne O Dwyer, Alison O'Donnell and others come together to collaborate on a wide variety of projects, loosely based in occult folk music. I Am Providence is one of the most intriguing of their projects; it is comprised of seven tracks recorded in Providence whilst on a US tour, the middle five of which were recorded at the grave of weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is of course a huge influence on a whole host of musicians, chiefly metal bands, but the graveside vigil of I Am Providence certainly constitutes the most creative musical tribute to the author that I'm aware of!
The central, 'graveside' tracks of the album, stay within a mood of mellow, gentle, and occasionally eerie lament, whilst shifting between styles, from the ritualistic, wordless introit 'Chthonic Spiral', to the rather lovely Alasdair Roberts-like folk song 'Tributaries of the Styx Under Providence' (nice title), to the Broadcast-with-banjo 'Swan Point Petrichor', and finally to the richly atmospheric keening-song 'Graveside Trudge'. The two outer tracks, meanwhile, recorded later in improvisatory a capella sessions infused with the sepulchral mood of the afternoon, are gorgeous, Stimmung by way of Sacred Harp, with the unbroken form and spectral overtones of the former being leavened by the marked cadences and simple tonalities of the latter. These tracks serve as a kind of wonderfully apt and weird séance-sermon for the eulogised Lovecraft, whose eldritch spirit is here so inscribed.
United Bible Studies and Jozef van Wissem - Downland
Downland, is a joint release by United Bible Studies and the Dutch lutenist, composer, and collaborator of Jim Jarmusch and James Blackshaw, Jozef van Wissem. Catalysed by a joint tour, Wissem began sending the group tracks in 2009, initiating a very modern kind of digital collaboration where different members of the group singularly and in concert operated upon Wissem's stark, quasi-early music compositions that evoke the composer John Dowland, punned upon in the title's mix of his name with Wissem's Lowlands origin, more in name (with 'Seven Tears' and 'Come Holy Ghost', for example, echoing Dowland titles) and timbre than feel and form.
The resulting seven tracks thus convey a kind of buried dialogue, seeming a simultaneity where they are actually a series. The music hovers evocatively between foreground and background as a result. The opening title track, for example, has droning, squibby noisescapes introducing, covering, thickening, and finishing off Wissem's repetitive, procedural lute arpeggios. Occasionally the fit is a little curious, as in sections of that tile track, or in 'Come Holy Ghost', which is a little thin, but more often than not the glosses and embellishments work well.
The most successful tracks are perhaps either those which travel farthest from the Wissem source, treating it as a kind of found cantus firmus upon which all manner of figuration and melody can be built, or, on the other hand, those where Wissem moves away from his much-favoured arpeggios that seem to me never quite to add up, although of course they are often effective, as for example here as scaffolding for the subtly-scored closer, 'The Seas Have Lifted Up Their Voice'.
The O'Donnell-led 'Seven Tears' is a good example of the tracks that take the former approach of extensive re-composition, with its intense dirge-cry evoking some rich notes of despair and drama. The Sean Nós-alike'Í Rith Na hÓiche' is another. Of the latter, non-arpeggiated tracks, 'Trade Boys For prostitutes Sell Girls For Wine' sounds barmy in a great way, with constant hints in its de-tuned slide guitar and noise of both 'Amazing Grace' and a drunk but peaceful Eugene Chadbourne. 'Altars of Brick (The Day is Coming)' shows Wissem and the collaboration off at their best, with a simple two-note lute figure constantly sounding like it's about to launch into Metallica's 'Battery', and microtuned string motifs adding filigree to O'Donnell's Beth Gibbons, eldritch chant. The achieved mystery of the track is emblematic of much of the album, which on the whole works very well indeed.
Speaking more generally, these are all highly interesting releases well worth your attention. The existence of this kind of marginal music can't be taken for granted, and it badly needs all the support it can get, both in Ireland and elsewhere. - Stephen Graham
I'm In The Abyss! - Abandon Reason Compilation
I've been to the abyss. Not in a metaphorical or existential sense; rather, in the tongue-in-cheek sense that's intended by the title of this compilation, which gathers together live and frequently-improvised performances from the titular void. The 'abyss' is a dank, abandoned underground car park in Galway, Ireland: four storeys deep, a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean and seemingly infinite in natural reverb and ambience. On the night in question, a word-of-mouth gig has been arranged there, featuring Aine O'Dwyer (harpist for experimental collective United Bible Studies) and Gorges, an improvisational trio.
Finding your way to the lower depths of the structure is something of a challenge for the uninitiated, and not a task for the claustrophobic. By the time you reach the second floor down, sheer darkness prevails - save, that is, for the rows of candles lined along the kerb that (as well as pointing you in the right direction) lend a surreal, faintly ritualistic air to the space, the first sign that these mundane, decaying surroundings are playing host to something out of the ordinary. Your sense of hearing takes over, but is also confused, as the strange strains of music that can now be heard seem to emanate from any number of directions. Finally you reach the source, but not before spoiling the moment by marching straight into a massive puddle of accumulated seawater.
Soaking feet aside however, to hear music performed in this environment is to experience unique nuances and hidden resonances; disquieting tones interacting and mutating in the structure's vast open spaces, as well as a vibe that's perfectly positioned between reverence and casual inclusiveness (the closing 'outerlude' of the compilation, 'Nefar-ee-us', documents performers and audience alike taking turns on a Moroccan sheep herder's horn).
The loose collective of like-minded musicians showcased on I'm In The Abyss! have been experimenting, recording and putting on under-the-radar gigs in the car park for the last couple of years. Abandon Reason was originally the name given to a radio broadcast/archive of these live recordings (still accessible and highly recommended), but the project has now been expanded in the form of a record label, and this is its debut release.
Musically, the compilation covers some diverse ground: from folk-ish numbers to ominous drones and violent clatter, or from shape-note singing to throat singing; not to mention pieces that are predominantly found sound or field recordings. What threads all these different strands together with surprising coherence is the unique acoustic character of the space that inspired them. By extension, it's the key to understanding why a group of musicians somewhat far-flung stylistically - and often geographically - have gravitated towards each other.
The first sounds you hear on the compilation are dripping water and the loud clatter of a security barrier, before the out-of-place ringing of a mobile phone provokes spontaneous laughter. It's a prelude of sorts, leading into the lo-fi folk of Yawning Chasm's 'Peripheral Eyes': a breezy and light-footed place to start, and a vibe that's more or less maintained for the tracks that immediately follow it. Brigid Power-Ryce is a musician with an impressive vocal range, her elongated singing style lending itself to a cappella renditions of Irish traditional folk songs; her contribution here - 'Tiny You And Me' - is an original, but vocally it comes from a similar place, all poise and simmering emotion, the wavering melody perfectly complimented by the ebb and flow of her accordion.
Things get more impressionistic as you go on. On Burrows' track 'In Winter', an eerie ambience is created by the interaction of gentle harmonium drone, wordless (and strangely soothing) vocal incantations, and the sound of cellotape-on-wall serving as man-made static. As it subtly and gradually expands, louder too grows the sound of seeping seawater. Elsewhere, on 'Albion Awake' the aforementioned Aine O'Dwyer's harp playing provides a rippling rhythmic accompaniment to her acrobatic-but-austere vocals, while also providing ornate, intricate flourishes of its own.
Anyone who's ever experienced the peculiarly ceremonial atmosphere of a busy cattle mart - all booming reverb, bovine ruckus and human chanting so lightning-fast that it takes on an enraptured speaking-in-tongues quality - will notice similar elements here at times, notably on Gavin Prior's 'Mjorn' or Gorges' 'Train, Clatter'. The latter track's unhinged rattle is counterbalanced by a recurring banjo figure that's lent a fluid quality by the odd acoustics. On 'Poles, violin, vuvuzela, the sea', an excerpt from a Noel Coward song is accompanied by the sound of structural poles 'played' with a multi-purpose torch (according to the delightfully extensive Bandcamp liner notes). Raising Holy Sparks' 'Set The Landscape Singing' is prefaced by excerpts of 'Sacred Harp 159 (Wondrous Love)'. Here and there, discordant snatches of sound recall atonal horror soundtracks.
Perhaps the most evocative track on the compilation is 'Underlude: Water table', on which a recording of an encounter with a pair of clampers is interspersed with the very first recording made in the car park, a meditative piece played on baritone ukulele and ebow. The throbbing sound that underpins the latter half of the track is explained in the liner notes as vibrations from a machine that pumps the standing water back out of the building: "The machine is obviously fighting a losing battle...so the water builds up, and as it does it changes the acoustics". The overall effect is a poignant depiction of decay and impermanence.
'Boku no Kioku', the bewitching, brass-infused closing track on the compilation ('Outerlude' aside), brings things full circle. It's a song by Japan-based act Darugaries, one of whom - Takashi Kumagai - did much to inspire the main movers behind this compilation when he used his time in Galway to put on 'Fairy Fort' gigs with a similarly experimental spirit. Mixing campfire strumming and bottle percussion with uplifting flourishes and Koichiro Miyaoka's soulful vocals, it manages to sound both shambling and spiritual at the same time. What really lends the recording its peculiar magic, however, is the way - and apologies for paraphrasing the liner notes once again - "trombone, clarinet and trumpets weave and dodge around the pillars and each other in perfect unison".
From the sequencing to the expository notes (sound sources and all) to the striking A3 prints that accompany it, everything about I'm In The Abyss! points to a labour of love. Further releases - musical and otherwise - are lined up for Abandon Reason, but for now this is an adventurous and absorbing debut, serving as both introduction and summation. At the very least, it's one of the more unique compilations you'll hear this year. - Daniel Harrison