The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Overdub Time Machine: Ian William Craig's Music For Magnesium_173
Jon Buckland , September 22nd, 2022 08:24

The British Columbian manipulates tape like it were the spools of time itself, finds Jon Buckland

“The life force of music is materialised on the brink of its own total disappearance.”

– Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time

Time became a plastic concern for all of us during the pandemic. Hours stretched out for days. Weeks flashed by. Repetitive working from home patterns became ordeals befitting a Groundhog Day sequel. Those of us traipsing in to work through spectral streets didn’t fare much better.

In particular, time took an odd turn for me as the pandemic was quickening its pace overseas. On the eve of lockdown I was diagnosed with a rare and incurable brain disease. Terminal was a word skilfully skirted. Onset rates that rapidly increase in line with age were tougher to sidestep. My time isn’t up just yet but with each passing second the chances of the disease killing me ratchet higher. Time suddenly felt like a pretty important thing to consider. Can I still fit in everything that I want to do? Is it even possible to prepare for the end? Should I just sit back and savour these trickling minutes? And, of course, how long do I really have left? Time became a gauntlet slung down, a fire lit beneath me, a ticking bomb.

Ian William Craig’s new album, Music For Magnesium_173, is a score specifically composed for a quantum mechanics inspired puzzle game comprised of fiendish grid-based line puzzles that’ll have you scratching your head even before they throw in the think-outside-the-box time manipulation mechanism.

Craig himself is a master manipulator of magnetic tape and has been since the early degraded loops of 2012’s Meaning Turns To Whisper. Time feels drawn to tape. It spools out minutes and hours, curving into tight rings like the expanding core of a miniature oak tree. Craig’s work is typically formed from his own operatic voice dubbed onto one or more electronically-meddled-with reel-to-reel devices and then transposed, stretched, rewound, repeated, overdubbed, sped up and slowed down. The full strata of available fiddling, tinkering, and modulation is applied. He loops and layers, erodes, distorts, starves devices of power, bends circuitry, and wrestles physically with these motorised appliances. And that’s before running anything through additional modular synthesisers or post production effects.

The sounds he captures are not obvious melodic compositions. They flutter, strain, repeat, emerge, and vanish. ‘It’s A Sound Not An Ocean’, for example, features a sullen heartbeat amidst rare tape scrapes that sound like heavily processed gates creaking. Or pained cats mewling. There are bursts of distortion alongside Craig’s wordless emotive sighs that, despite his protestations, lap at us like waves. Second track, ‘A Given Stack’, appears to be a recording of spluttering electronic life struggling amidst a heaven-bound ascendancy. It’s not the only moment to reference some sort of angelic heraldry. Opener ‘Blue Suit Glitch’ is formed of high pressured rumbles that Craig’s voice struggles to break through. Continued persistence results in his stratified chants dominating, briefly, like light flaring in a tunnel, before it all descends into digitally mangled manifestations of despair and uncertainty.

Sometimes these snippets land only once, never to be heard again. Sometimes they are mechanical and devoid of overt musicality. ‘Attention For It Radiates’ fizzes at the back of the skull like gargled popping candy whilst ‘Zero Crossing’ is a forest traipse in which trampled leaves have been replaced with reams of audio tape that shuffles slowly through a banged up stereo. Each step imprinting a fresh patina of existence’s weight. These corroded collages are the new music. And it’s not even that new.

It’s important to say at this point that what Ian William Craig does with sound, with tape, with his voice, is staggeringly beautiful. To the extent that it hurts. Even prior to my diagnosis, I’d generally been drawn to genres that obfuscate time. Whether it’s the distending, drawn out notes in drone and ambient, trance-inducing thumped beats simply reiterating the same moment over and over again, or the complete surrender to oblivion brought on by walls of harsh noise, there’s definitely been a tendency towards fourth-dimensional erasure. Craig magnificently combines this escapist urge of mine with a confrontational manipulation of chronology that forces awareness of time’s entirely human fallibility. It’s a provocative act of sonic sorcery that feels painfully personal and thoroughly delightful.

The theoretic physicist Julian Barbour, in his controversial book The End Of Time, made the claim that “Time is change, nothing more, nothing less.” Ambient music, then, is a non-violent assault on the notion of time. With all bombast stripped out – no marauding drums, no ear worm guitar licks, no melodic runs, or vocal hooks – the gentle easing from state to state is practically motionless, from time’s perspective. Whilst listening to Music For Magnesium_173, our experience of time is wholly in Craig’s hands. At any point he might send us into a Möbius Strip, destined to reprise the same twirling patch time and time again. Or his sounds could stutter, lodging us into limbo-like stasis, awaiting his gift of forward momentum.

It’s in these manipulations of time and sound, these soothing drones, the serene swells, the cascading arias cracked and strewn with digital interference, that the internal morbid march calms down a little. It slows the spiralling questions, the gaping fears. The sense of time foreshortened, of futures crumbling, of loss. They gradually fade until they’ve completely disappeared. And in that moment, with life seemingly teetering on the gossamer-thin brink of existence, intentionally or not, a warm feeling of serenity floods in. A gentle flutter of hope. Of peace. And that in itself is a gift far greater than time travel.