Sounds From Beyond Science: Rum Music By Russell Cuzner
, September 11th, 2015 08:44
Russell Cuzner journeys beyond science, with this month's column including a haunted solo LP from Coil member Drew McDowall, a release from Drekka on Dais, intense minimal on Important Records, and more
It can discover sub-atomic particles and probe black holes but it would seem music still eludes the scientific world with its unquantifiable polarities and ineffable qualities. Three scientific studies got staff here at the Rum Music Library particularly hot-under-the-headphones this summer by flagrantly ignoring music’s essential capacity for contrast. In doing so their combined results proved that only those tracks that stubbornly stick to a genre template can be prodded and poked by existing methods.
There was the one that stated "extreme music does not make angry participants angrier"(1). When its enraged volunteers were asked to turn to their choice of sonic stress ball (that included Manowar's Dawn Of Battle and Five Finger Death Punch's 100 Ways To Hate) their feelings of "hostility, irritability and stress" were seen to diminish. While the study no doubt enjoyed confounding old-fashioned expectations of metal as a corruptive force, it merely established that taking time out to listen to your choice of rock genre will reduce stress a bit.
Another tested the hard-not-to-believe hypothesis that "musical preferences are personality linked"(2). It kicked off by tarring all listeners' attention spans with the same impatient brush asserting that "when listening to a new song, it takes us just a few seconds to decide whether to press repeat, change to the next tune, or to buy it", before asking its participants to assess a somewhat arrested array of 15 second excerpts of 'library music'. Apparently this led to the conclusion that those with a "bias towards empathizing..." tend to prefer "music on the Mellow dimension" while "music on the Intense dimension" was more for those with a "bias towards systemising..." as if such dimensions are mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, the third explored whether "the evolution of musical diversity ... is gradual or punctuated"(3), its computer algorithms scanning decades of chart music for timbre and chord changes to conclude that the last stylistic revolution in popular music was almost fifteen years' ago. But, by limiting their selection to the US Billboard Hot 100, these so-called revolutions were more likely in marketing spend than instances of genuine novelty.
Although these experiments are not without interest, each is arguably so skewed by a fixation on genres, and 'popular' ones at that, as to be almost contemptuous - regarding music as a mere utility, ingested to regulate the emotions and pre-packed to appeal to the relevant personality type. It would seem the world of science is unsuited to assessing the realisation and rewards of the unfamiliar over the predictable comfort zones of the known. So, until academia develops the abilities and insights to explain the allure of experiencing unpredictable excursions in sound, these latest rum releases signposted below all remain beyond science, placing their visionary sounds into the much more glamorous genres of the supernatural and the paranormal.
Drew McDowall - Collapse
You couldn't wish for a better example of this than the haunted synth work of Drew McDowall. Working as part of Coil in 1994, their perhaps strangest sounding project, Worship The Glitch, was informed by the sense that some entity, later named ELpH, was being channelled into the recordings via the mixing desk. On the evidence of his recent, mesmeric work as Compound Eye (with Psychic Ills' Tres Warren) and now here on Collapse this open-minded and unscientific attitude to technology has continued to contribute a rare and peculiar presence to his hypnotic modulations.
Shockingly Collapse is his debut solo album despite a career that extends back to the punk age when he migrated to London from Glasgow, hooking up with Psychic TV and going on to become a member of Coil for much of the nineties. More recently he is to be found Stateside, playing collaboratively with the likes of the aforementioned Warren and Emeralds' John Eliot. But going solo hasn't diminished the potency of his output.
Collapse opens audaciously with a 20-minute epic titled 'The Chimeric Mesh Withdraws'; its three movements paint a haunted drama on the air. It takes its listeners over cold, suspended tones with interior movements like condensation trails on glass, then through murmurating forms and horror film hues filled with creaks, whispers and voice fragments, only to arrive washed up and alone on a dense and troubled reedy tide.
The second half continues to invoke apparitional and alien auras across four shorter pieces, each with flickering suggestions of melody and rhythm to briefly illuminate their structure. There’s the beautiful analog textures on 'Hypnotic Congress' that shrink and loom ominously before accelerating into a suspenseful chase theme, while 'Through Is Out' bears an ancient, devotional angle thanks to the possessed violin work of Nicky Mao amidst the golden, majestic arches of McDowall's slightly unstable synthesisers in flight.
Strangely, instead of concluding with the expected sense of dénouement, the album’s end feels like the start of a journey: 'Each Surface Of Night' baptises with a dark pool of rich electronic textures, both refreshing and foreboding, leaving its listeners feeling changed as if modified by Collapse's aural abduction - a rare mark of a powerful work.
Drekka - Unbeknownst To The Participants At Hand
Also out on the Dais this month is the second release for the label from Bloomington's Michael Anderson. Despite several prolific periods since the project's inception in 1996, last year's Ekki Gera Fikniefum (apparently bad Icelandic for 'Don't do drugs') was Drekka's first full length release in nine years. Unbeknownst To The Participants At Hand follows this with more collaged chaos, this time hewn from Anderson's archive of recordings he has made with others, be it through live performance or home-based sessions. This strategy resists naming those 'participants' as if to emphasise the extent to which Anderson has mutated their contributions into works even the players wouldn't recognise.
Like McDowall's release, it bravely opens with a side-long track, but whereas Collapse's first side was filled with texture and movement, Drekka's piece is more a steady drift. Played loud, however, and 'The Seventh Continent (Oceanic Waves Wave)' can have a chilling effect: the sustained groans of its roiling fog remind of the sound of the invisible force lurking outside the cabin in The Evil Dead, while rustles, wailing, footsteps and the clanking of chains suggest there's something lurking inside too.
Lulled into a false sense of insecurity the real evil is to come however, when the first side's horror film ambience is shattered by three pieces of harsh, largely electrical, noiseworks. Bristling high frequencies and low-end buzzes spew wildly across the stereo image, initially providing a bracing contrast but become irritating by the side's midpoint before concluding with a hot pool of concentrically phasing engines and wind chimes of hellish proportions.
Maja S. K. Ratkje, Jon Wesseltoft, Camille Norment, Per Gisle Galåen - Celadon
Celadon captures a one-off performance from these four, highly-respected Oslo-based artists who came together in May 2013 to effectively collaborate with a space, an interior that comes across very much as the 'producer' of the hour-long, minimal yet intense performance. The mausoleum of Emanuel Vigeland was chosen for its acoustic properties and is a work of art in its own right - with walls and ceilings that would house the painter’s body when he died in 1948, decorated with his erotic paintings as a dedication to life.
Both fertile and reverential, the sounds the players sent out into this tomb become anointed with particularly long and rich reverb trails that float, linger and layer in the space. For the first two pieces Maja Ratkje's cool, controlled voice is born aloft on gentle suspensions from Wesseltoft's accordion, organ and harmonium, Norment's glass armonica and Galåen's zither, instruments seemingly chosen for their sumptuous long tones. The confluence of their extending chords resonate and writhe to remind of some of the Indian raga-inspired works of the West Coast's Terry Riley, Henry Flynt and particularly the more recent performances from Catherine Christer Hennix, also released by Important Records.
The last half of of the disk is taken up by the half-hour piece, 'Afterglow', in one simple word perfectly describing the magical effect the venue had on the sounds. Distorting perceptions of time, the lengthy, droning tones go beyond their hitherto mysterious, cool charm to become unnervingly fervent, while Ratkje sounds at her most possessed to conclude an astonishing, transformative work that manages to be both foreboding and joyful.
Hour House - Chiltern
On Chiltern, Melbourne's Mark Leacy and Sam Kenna take an ambulatory survey of North Eastern Victoria's valleys, rivers, parks and creeks - sites significant to the area's gold mining heritage from the 19th century. But far from a straightforward, historical narrative, Hour House instead maps a new sound world that is oblique and surreal. At first, the titles might have you thinking otherwise: 'Brick Kiln', 'The Ovens' and 'Magenta Mine' give the expectation of documentary-style field recordings, but the experience is dramatically different. Chiltern proceeds like a psychogeographic ghost story, mixing what we have been led to guess is the industrious sounds of old - the shuffle of minecart tracks, the whine of rusty mechanics - with ancient and modern musical cues - from ritualistic incantations and horns to simmering guitar textures and trembling synth streaks. Melodic passages regularly emerge out of this confusion, like Kenna’s fluttering koto-like layers and tentative voice on 'Magenta Mine', reminiscent of the soft but sorely poised modes of Labradford, or 'Violet Town's earthy, contemplative bowed tones that add emotive context to the preceding splashes, drags and clunks of workmanlike scenes.
Due to its initially bewildering flux, Chiltern improves with repeat listens as ones ears become accustomed to Hour House's idiosyncratic praxis that produces a haunting balance of location and disorientation.
Liberez - All Tense Now Lax
While the revolving, intriguing parade of noises, hisses and scrapes, generously smeared across Liberez' previous two albums are still a key ingredient on All Tense Now Lax, the focus seems to have changed to rhythm. The unusual interplay between "main orchestrator" John Hannon's violin and the propulsions from percussionist Pete Wilkins creates a kind of dance music, but neither electronic nor clubbable. In fact, the sound is a highly elusive one, seeming to be at once a live jam and a studio-brewed collage. The instruments can sound bootleg raw - the percussion sometimes primitive, the violin oftentimes frenzied, but blended with Nina Bosnic's deliriously processed vocals and the aforementioned samples of sonic detritus, the effect is dreamlike; or, perhaps more accurately, the feeling when trying to distinguish between real and dreamt memories following a night of intoxication.
'Grateful Family' starts with what sounds like sloppy drumming on a bucket instead of a drum kit, its semi-regular gait surrounded by violin drama before piece lurches suddenly into a heady, post-rock groove under which Bosnic’s deadpan narration emerges - somehow both reminding of Sonic Youth's lo-fi pop chuggers and Godspeed's explosive jubilance.
But it is more exotic sounding than either band, maybe thanks to the violin's gypsy or klesmer connotations where tracks like '419 Chop Your $' and 'How Much For Your Brother' rise to cacophonous, celebratory levels, feeling like you've drunkenly stumbled into a foreign wedding. All Tense Now Lax displays a rare combination of nurturing the non-musical nuances of its sounds while keeping its deranged party in full swing.
Simon Scott - Insomni
The work of Simon Scott also balances musical and non-musical matter, but with very different results to Liberez' chaotic celebrations. Combining the disciplined, “active listening” approaches of field recording with the cloudy chords and resplendent, picked melodies of six and twelve-string guitars, Scott arrives at a crossroads - part documentary, part folk art.
Previously this was deftly displayed on Below Sea Level, originally released in 2012 on 12k, its hazy guitar drifting over a sound document of the aural ecology of the Fens Of East of England. But whereas Below Sea Level seemed to remain in a perpetual, sun-dappled morning filled with play and fascination for the natural environment, Insomni, as its title eludes, begins at night. Apparently suffering from sleeplessness, Scott would get up in the dark and start recording sounds instead of counting sheep. Here, he would pick up the often inaudible sound spillage of electronic devices to develop a small library of hidden, domestic noises that are threaded through this album. These light pops, sines, buzzes and hums are deployed subtly, however, across Insomni's 42 minutes, often gently confused with birdsong and waterways, together forming a backdrop for Scott's centre-staged guitar work. Its range soars from majestic clusters and arches of dense, distorted bursts, reminding of Fennesz’ processed guitar, through floating, ethereal suspensions, to nimble, sentimental pluckery. But perhaps what makes this most common of instruments the most remarkable aspect of Insomni is the way it has been recorded. As the album slowly unravels, the dreamy qualities fade and the more purposeful melodic flow strengthens, reflecting the obscurity of night turning into the clarity of day, where the richest recordings of 6 and 12 string passages await. Their striking iridescence is perhaps a consequence of Scott's openness to all sounds where his attentive listening to natural environments has bestowed him with a remarkably keen ear with which to capture the many and varied qualities of his guitar.
K. Leimer With Bill Seaman - The Pale Catalog
(Palace Of Lights)
Last year's The Grey Catalog from Kerry Leimer, the Canadian composer whose often overlooked yet extensive back catalogue has been compared to the sedate wares of Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and the more ambient end of Germany's Kosmische movement, sounded more like the digital pointillism of alva.noto than analogue dreamscapes. The subtleties of its spare, highly-cultivated audio events shone out of an ultra clean canvas, all the better for emphasising the delicate details of their decay.
Bill Seaman's reshaping of that album's sessions on this new release perhaps benefits from this spacious approach, giving room for his processes to infect and transmute the source material. Seaman is a professor of art at Durham, North Carolina's Duke University and has developed a system he calls “recombinant poetics” with which to transform media into "functional examples of generative virtual environments." For this release, Seaman was passed stereo mixdowns for "deconstruction, reprocessing, reconstruction" culled from Leimer's "generative experiments" with The Grey Catalog's sound library. In other words, as opposed to a remix, Leimer and Seaman realised a new, independent work through a combination of chance and intervention, respectively.
Like fingerprints, each of the ten tracks on The Pale Catalog is unique yet has similar functions or attributes. At once both cloudy and vivid, each comes across like a study of an arctic micro-climate, their icy, sonorous layers shifting organically as if at the mercy of elemental forces. Suitably titled 'Faults', the second piece's sudden eruptive tones become corrupt as their resonant trails form a constantly moving wake. Later, presumably its companion piece, 'Solemn Faults', has dripped tones evaporating as they hit the rich, layered Rhodes-like sound bed as tentative clicks and knocks suggest life preserved beneath its surface.
Equally successful as ambient or immersive environments, Seaman's unstable yet serene set of sonic explorations have the power to transform an everyday room into a multi-dimensional world of flux.
Brutter - Brutter
Brothers Christian and Fredrik from the musical Norwegian Wallumrød family team up on Brutter, their first release as a duo. Christian has a background in church music and jazz and has his own acclaimed ensemble that records his modern compositions for the revered ECM label, while last year saw his debut solo release of "multi-dimensional chamber music" on the same label. In contrast, Fredrik sits on the rockier side of the tracks, lending his drumming to garage metal bands Span, El Caco and Dog Almighty as well as to their sister, Susanna's dreamier, poppier songcraft. The three tracks that form Brutter sit right in the middle of these fraternal experiences to explore avant-garde composition through percussion alone.
'Geigered's title, by suggesting the crackling machine whose rising frequency denotes increasing radiation levels, hands its listeners a concept to help guide them through what is so original and unusual it might otherwise be incomprehensible. Brutter’s damaged drum machines and unstable electronics often seem to be conspiring to form a regular rhythm, but with serial false starts the incongruent Geiger counting seems designed to irritate anyone expecting anything approaching fluidity.
Portrait by Carsten Aniksdal
A similar, attritional atmosphere is found on the short, second piece, 'Radiopuls'. Although Christian's dry, jazz-angled drum machine does get complemented by Fredrik's live drums – itself a rare combination to behold - they seem to fall apart as soon as regularity sets in. Stubborn arrhythmia reigns for the closing piece, 'Badminton Bleak', but by this stage ears begin to get accustomed to their novel interplay. Instead of rhythms the players are seeking and transforming textures, like Geiger counters seek radiation, their chaotic collisions never intended to inspire the, literally, knee-jerk reaction of toe-tapping. In this way Brutter feels like an exercise in changing ones mental gears to stop anticipating rhythm and to begin to appreciate the other qualities served and returned between the two players.
Lumisokea - Mnemosyne
With Mnemosyne, Berlin-based duo Lumisokea seem to be edging away from the influences strongly indicated across their two releases from last year: the polished productions of Apophenia and Eavesdropping On Pianists were reminiscent of the rhythms of Pan Sonic and sound design from the more industrial end of dubstep. But now, Koenraad Ecker and Andrea Taeggi's latest full length focusses on weaving a potent sequence of fictitious memories from more electro-acoustic threads to bring us an immersive cyberpunk story both experimental and engaging.
Having studied classical and jazz composition together at Conservatorium van Amsterdam in the mid-noughties, Ecker on cello and guitar, Taeggi on piano, their subsequent enthusiasm for dubstep club nights lead to a dark electronica informed by timbre as much as regular rhythm. But a week long residency at WORM studios in Rotterdam in 2012 gave the pair access to the almost-antique charms of Arp, EMS, Optigan and Synrinx sounds. Recordings of their improvisations were the catalyst for Mnemosyne, but far from a synth revival the analog outputs have been carefully sculpted and encrusted with acoustic attributes from gamelan bells, piano and cello.
While traces of clubbable beats still echo through tracks like 'Jenseits' and 'Abri', the majority of the album has a stranger, older, more ritualistic vibe. The opening track, 'Flatland' sees bowed tones arcing over burbling electronics and rudimentary percussion on what sounds like a metal sheets to cast strange scenes of a tribal encampment praying in a wasteland of forgotten surveillance tech. 'Prowl' continues the drama with a totemic acoustic drum leading through wayward electronic noises zooming in and out suspiciously. The album’s closing scenes feel like a night time hunt, 'Risacca' and 'Hearsay's spraying synths and mutating hits describe a stealthy procession of monstrous yet invisible aliens.
With a sonic palette fast becoming all their own Mnemosyne betrays Ecker and Taeggi's seduction by sound, passing it enthusiastically on to their listeners through fascinating productions that inspire dystopian drama without words.
F Ingers - Hide Before Dinner
(Blackest Ever Black)
Melbourne's F Ingers brings together the duo known as Tarcar, consisting of Carla dal Forno and Tarquin Manek (whose solo audio oddness as LST was examined in an earlier round of Rum), with Manek's partner in so-called "LOL-fi" band Bum Creek, Samuel Karmel. At the end of last year Blackest Ever Black released Tarcar's Mince Glace 12 - a short selection of haunting songs spun over dirty synth 'n' bass, and F Ingers arguably goes darker still, with a sluggish, drug-ish set permanently at the point of collapse.
The combination of dal Forno's childlike yet emotionless vocals with lazy American guitar twangs, one-fingered synth and loose-limbed bass lines delivers a seedy sense of the out-of-it, careless vacuity of Brett Eaton Ellis characters, while the seriously sinister production casts them in a video nasty.
Take 'Tantrum Time', its flat but otherwise cheesy dream pop is turned nightmarish by the hissy corruptions of the recording giving rise to wasted electronics and vocals saturated in woozy echo. 'Useless Treasure' is the same, the familiarity in the song form combined with a grimy, Throbbing Gristle-like delivery gives off a similar feel to those dreams your conscious mind becomes aware of but cannot wake from.
Throughout distortion levels uniformly rise and fall as if broadcast on a cheap radio, a humidity affecting its reception in waves as it spills out into a dry, empty shack. It is as if each track gets routed through an effects pedal or two before being mastered to VHS in a last, lazy phase of recording.
All this is not to say it lacks a more studious attitude - on the contrary, F Ingers’ Hide Before Dinner is a wickedly spun delight, a pop détournement, that provides a welcome but no less potent contrast to much other arty uses of sound to dramatically deliver its listeners far beyond the sanitised world.
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