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Max Syedtollan
Disposables Antonio Poscic , March 1st, 2023 09:05

Glasgow-based composer decomposes

Can fever dream logic be used as a viable composition technique? Judging by Max Syedtollan’s new record, there’s certainly an argument to be made about it. The Glasgow-based composer and artist had already demonstrated a deft touch in combining contemporary classical sensibilities with decidedly out of the left field, DIY approaches on his previous records like 2019’s Planctae/8 Fictions (as Horse Whisperer) and 2021’s Four Assignments (& Other Pieces) with the Plus-Minus Ensemble. Disposables is, however, incomparable. Not really an evolutionary step, but rather a carpe diem sort of push into the unknown.

Consider that some dogs chew on their own paws, tails, and flanks when bored. Imagine if James Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window didn’t find a murder mystery to keep himself entertained with. The narrative presented across twelve miniatures on Disposables draws inspiration from a similar situation in Syedtollan’s life. Apparently, the album was conceived as he was recovering from a serious accident and waiting for surgery. “Apparently”, I write, because Syedtollan’s art often digs deep into surreal imagery and gallows humour, so nothing can ever be certain. Still, taking into account how neatly this origin story fits with the music’s deeply seated unease and sense of being stranded without means of escape, I’m inclined to believe in it.

The album gives off a claustrophobic, ominous impression from its first to its last second. ‘The Creaks, The Creaks’ is the perfect appetiser, in this sense. Its slo-mo surge of hiss, nondescript modulations, tinnitus-like frequency sweeps, and the annoying noise of people chattering in a neighbouring room set the stage for what follows. If Kali Malone’s recent Does Spring Hide Its Joy captured the blues of confined routines, then here we have rote’s manic side in full effect, manifested as an atmosphere of incipient madness and desire to gnaw at one’s own mind and body. But this is just the start. When ‘I Don’t Want Lorenzo Hearing Me Singing Today’ comes into focus, its quick background pulses and revolving synth lines serve to elevate Syedtollan’s already anxiety-inducing, rapid-fire delivery of “I’m singing as quickly as I can” into panicked paranoia. “He’ll be back any second now,” he sings, before a layer of blaring woodwinds sounds off the alarm.

Although Syedtollan coined the term “decomposition” while working on the material, his earlier, traditionally purposeful process remains at play here. It can be heard either directly through the plaintive bow of distorted strings on ‘Ok’ or as a conscious negation of established patterns, like those found in the reversed flow of percussion and compressed, Mike Patton-reminiscent whispers on ‘Make It Tonight’. Connected by sustained tension, there are moments of gleeful idiosyncrasy sprinkled across the pieces. ‘My Dog’ is all finger snaps, vaudevillian burlesque, and cabaret in the vein of Tom Waits or The Tiger Lillies. ‘Death Island’ opens with muted, sleazy dance beats that evoke both the racy reality of Love Island and the English takeover of the Croatian coast in summer. Soon enough, though, a breathless rhythm consumes everything in its path and turns the cut into a devastating Coil-cum-Swans affair.

“For I am disposable,” sighs Syedtollan accompanied by scuzzy acoustic guitar plucks in the dying minutes of the album. The closer ‘Disposable’ is the inevitable crash that comes after a frenzied episode. The pitch shifts lower and lower, underscoring the depleted, beaten vocal delivery. It’s an ending that does not really feel like an ending, but the voice of an artist who’s just had a revelation about himself and music-making.