Dewey Decibel Sound System: Rum Music With Russell Cuzner

Russell Cuzner once again allows strange sounds into his years and reviews music from the far out zones by Skullflower, Scorpion Bowl, Drew Mulholland, Tom James Scott, Jana Winderen, Thomas Köner, Kevin Drumm, Anjou, Lawrence English, Transllusion and Neel

Categorisation is always a problem here in the Rum Music Library. Long, dark corridors of shelving that bend under the weight of all manner of disks, tapes, hard drives and wax cylinders, contain very little in common as, arguably, each individual release aspires to be uncommon. This stubbornly singular category is of course useless when attempting to navigate the ever-increasing amounts and availability of avant garde audio experiences. However, common to the vast majority of stock and neatly explaining the organisational issue is the Rum Music Library’s lack of words, an admittedly strange situation for a library to contend with. But, as highlighted in a previous Rum round-up, it is this very quality that makes this most elusive of musics so stimulating, providing rare respite from the everyday negotiations of meaning that tie us up in activities beyond the act of listening.

Previous attempts at sub-dividing these wordless sound worlds have always felt futile or even damaging: ‘Instrumental’ accurately describes what is lacking, but not what is there; ‘ambient’ suggests something to be kept in the background and not to be noticed, whereas without focus pieces tagged as such are less likely to be understood; and ‘noise’ or ‘drone’ reduce a sound work to just one element, like referring to ‘rock music’ as ‘guitar’, or ‘classical music’ as ‘notes’.

I’ve always had an admiration for the way book shops organise themselves. Compared to record shops whose racks can suffer a regular rash of new micro genres to confuse the uninitiated, book shops boldly bung all creative writing into the bucket labelled ‘fiction’ with just ‘crime’, ‘horror’ and ‘science fiction’ as the usual sub-categories. While this means that you’re likely to find E L James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey fairly near to James Joyce’s Ulysses, at least everyone can be assured that both are imagined works and invite the reader into their world, however close or removed it is from reality.

‘Fiction’ could be as good a label as any for much Rum Music. While most of the recent releases that follow are not trying to tell fully-formed stories in sound, like fiction they all deliver novel environments (no pun intended!), with some strategically linked to reality to give richer insights into the way we perceive the world, while others willingly leaving it behind to take us closer to the inner worlds of our subconscious or the imagined outer worlds of our universe and beyond. So, welcome to the Rum Music Library – "quiet please!"

Neel – Phobos
(Spectrum Spools)

With much of the music in this column using technology to produce alien sounds it is quite easy to consider it as forms of science fiction and Neel’s debut release, Phobos, is explicitly that. Here, Giuseppe Tillieci takes an interstellar diversion from the more grounded and regular tribal techno he produces with Donato Dozzy as Voices from the Lake, to explore the mysteries of Mars’ largest moon. The track titles suggest a linear narrative that starts ‘Post landing’ and goes on to explore the geographical features of the orbiting body: from a ‘Storm In Stickney’, its biggest impact crater, then ‘Travelling On Kepler Dorsum’ the moon’s distinct ridge, to discovering ‘Life On Laputa Regio’. These meticulously sculpted digital tracks, however, form a single piece where singing winds drift at a constant speed into a foreboding metronomic haze punctuated by mysterious patters, streaks and creaks suggesting evidence of otherwise hidden creatures. As one gets familiar with the limited range of imaginative sounds it largely becomes a relaxing experience, Phobos’ smooth ride sometimes seeming less adventurous than its track titles suggest. While there is the occasional dramatic injection of fear fit for the Greek god the moon was named after, a spacey choral theme, reminiscent of Hassell’s Fourth World explorations, eventually emerges across the last two chapters combined with the juiciest percussive droplets to suggest an almost joyful denouement to Neel’s drifting story.

Transllusion – The Opening Of The Cerebral Gate

Mind Over Positive And Negative Dimensional Matter

Detroit’s Drexciya used science fiction to frame their techno/electro hybrids as a polemical quest. Their authoring of an underwater kingdom populated by the offspring of pregnant women thrown from the slave ships of the 18th and 19th centuries lent their music both a mythical and political dimension, amplified by their anonymity throughout the nineties and inspiring reverent responses from all who danced to their funky yet alienating instrumentals. By the time the duo’s identities were revealed they had already split and were focussing on solo projects. Transllusion was one of the many monickers James Stinson recorded under the year before his untimely passing in 2002 whose debut album have now been re-released by Tresor. ‘The Opening of the Cerebral Gate’ is as good an example as any of Stinson’s proprietary audio hypnotism inducted by a pendulus 808 and thematic rich analogue synth layers. But instead of suggesting alternate realities or different ways to view our own, the music, by itself, belies the high concepts of its titles and instead induces dancing. Not a bad thing, of course, but, like with Drexciya’s output, it generates a sense of depth unreached by the music alone. At less than 20 minutes, the EP, Mind Over Positive And Negative Dimensional Matter, works better in this respect, as its brief but infectious, mechanical manoeuvres avoid inducing the fatigue of repetition that the LP achieves with its longer duration ultimately revealing the tyrannical grid of its sequencer.

Lawrence English & Werner Dafeldecker – Shadow Of The Monolith
(Holotype Editions)

Shadow Of The Monolith manages to conjure up a far more potent proposition in science fiction, probably without intending to. Listening to works like this I’m reminded of the revolution science fiction went through in the sixties that resulted in a ‘New Wave’. Having got tired of space operas and robots it was identified as using "new literary techniques and modes of expression" to apply science fiction’s ‘what if?’ to other arguably more relevant areas of life such as psychology, meteorology or biotechnology. Here, Brisbane-based sound artist Lawrence English and Viennese composer Werner Dafeldecker utilise new techniques and modes, namely "electroacoustic transformations" of sounds they recorded across the Antarctic Peninsula, to form a dramatic, seemingly alien environment out of our own. Deftly sequenced for maximum contrast, the mostly non-human sounds tend to divide into those from the sea, land and air. The opening piece, ‘Fathom Flutter’, begins busily, bubbling away as icebergs crack and release pockets of air to sound like underwater insects furiously feasting. But best of all is when these foreground sounds drop away to reveal a truly awesome sense of depth – the sound of the ocean itself. The mysterious air of ‘Intake’ has a similar chasmic effect, but feels less threatening with its dreamy gong-like reverberations and stately turbulence taking the listener high up in the air. The album works best after a few listens when one can resist attempting to identify the sound sources and let the superbly assembled collage of non-musical sound matter seduce your mind uncramped by comprehension.

Anjou – Anjou

Also unintentionally sci-fi, I’m guessing, comes Anjou, a work four years in the making from Labradford’s Robert Donne and Mark Nelson with Locrian’s Steven Hess. The strange sounds their synths, guitar and percussion manage to make are so at odds with the quotidian life painted in an impressionistic style on the sleeve as to suggest some invisible force or dimension we are oblivious to without their epic music. Throughout there’s a strong sense of instability as the suspended, gradually warping tones cast doubt on the ability of your playback system to cope with their weft and weave. Opener ‘Lamptest”s hidden melody effervesces as it describes the descent of an elevator on a giant, off-world vessel, making the room in which its played perceptibly vibrate with its deep, bold, slow dive. ‘Sighting’ sees percussive brushes burst through radial, iridescent chords inspiring images of galactic-scale kaleidoscopic formations, the regularity of its percussive end phase rescuing the listener from a freefall in a vast chaos. The trio first appeared together last year on Pan American’s ‘Cloud Room, Glass Room’, whose tracks suggested long journeys across deserts and the beauty of sunrises, whereas Anjou sets the controls for the heart of a white dwarf, a rousing communion with density of colossal proportions.

Kevin Drumm – Phantom Jerk


(Editions Mego)

Being perhaps best known for one of the loudest records known to man in 2002’s Sheer Hellish Miasma, Chicago’s Kevin Drumm indicates he is a full spectrum kinda guy with these two recent releases. Phantom Jerk, a "music for six oscillators" presents three uneven chapters of hushed, hovering tones. The first, and longest at 23 minutes, sees the long notes repeatedly but irregularly appear and disappear casting a haunting and organic sense to the proceedings. Their slow swell and retreat suggests deep breaths with long pauses to create a suspenseful state. Pushing this disorientating dimension further is some possible edits towards the end of the piece where a single tone within the overall cloud seems crudely cut to give an uncertain sense of a sudden disappearance, while the extant eerie sounds, somewhere between a rusty gate and the rubbed rim of a wet wine glass, become busier in their sonorous interactions like lightly accelerating curls of smoke. Similar tones are deployed to a distinctly different effect by the end of the disk where the sound is more like the thick chords of a church organ with a seriously high pitch at its centre whose shape is fluidly affected by the position of your head. This aural illusion is made all the more disconcerting by hidden voices seeming to emerge from deep within the mesmeric mix. I had to pause the recording several times to convince me it wasn’t an overspill of sociable neighbours outside, but each time the feint chatter stopped, only to return when playback resumed.

Less haunting but certainly more supernatural is Trouble, perhaps the quietest recording known to man. Using a similarly oscillating sound pool, Drumm’s preparation of tones is like a parade through dark passages periodically lit by gently flickering sound candles. It gets its listener to crane forward, to concentrate intensely, and, as such, restricts movement as all external sounds become remarkably amplified – an uncrossing of legs creates a seismic brush, a shift of weight sends a huge creak into the air, while the activity of ones otherwise invisible heating system becomes a noise pollutant. Indeed the opening of the jewel case that houses the release and the sound of the disk entering the player are louder events than anything felt when listening to it. The genius of the piece is that it’s difficult to know when it has ended so, assuming you can ignore any timecode readouts, the confluence of Trouble with the sounds of your immediate environment need never end.

Jana Winderen – Out Of Range


Thomas Köner & Jana Winderen – Cloitre

The recordings of Jana Winderen can be literally supernatural as they take sounds that are not in our nature to hear, such as those above our frequency threshold of 20kHz and, using various techniques, bring them into focus for us to comprehend. Unknown to us, this ‘ultrasound’ often fills our environments – bats and dolphins especially make use of them – and on Out Of Range Winderen uses their unfamiliar timbres and textures in a longform collage of field recordings. On a ghostly aquatic tone travel clouds of diverse chatter – from approximations of twittering birds to what sounds like the zap of an electric fly killer – on a downward current whose combination of airborne suggestions and drowning depths is disorientating and strange but darkly dramatic and wonderful to behold. Like ‘Shadow Of The Monolith’ above, while the revelation of otherwise hidden sounds is remarkable to experience, their context is in danger of obscuring the intrinsic beauty not just of the individual sounds themselves, but also the artisan-like way Winderen has put them together.

Cloitre, her live collaboration with Thomas Köner from earlier this year effortlessly forges a fiction by bringing together not just two experienced sound artists together but by adding the additional dimension of a reverberrent space to their emanations. Performed in the cloisters of a cathedral in Normandy, this third ‘collaborator’ suited Köner and Winderen’s output perfectly – a reverent space designed for silence into which the pair gradually pour their recordings of bat and bird song, ice crevasses, submarine ambience, winds and vapours. Like Out Of Range, despite the wildlife hissing, chirruping and twittering, the overall feeling is that of floating in an undiscovered environment. There are seriously deep, sinking sensations at work here, as if descending through the other side of the ocean into a deserted lagoon at the bottom of a vast chasm, the only suggestion of human life is the rare toll of a church bell, presumably provided by the venue and not the players. As such it would be the perfect soundtrack for Ballard’s early climate fiction, at times reminding of both The Drowned World‘s tropical temperatures and flooding, and The Crystal World‘s solidifying jungle.

Tom James Scott – Teal

Teal was recorded following Tom James Scott’s visit to his coastal roots in the North West of England and effortlessly reminds of how a place can stir childhood memories. The classically-trained Scott has played piano several times as part of the equally evocative Elodie with Andrew Chalk, Timo van Luijk and Jean-Noël Rebilly – and both Chalk and Rebilly appear on the odd track here. Indeed, Teal‘s vignettes borrow heavily from Chalk’s craft of combining found sounds with harmonically rich but unhummable minimal arrangements. Here, Scott gently but purposefully diffuses a warm organ or a tentative piano into the sea air like impressionistic watercolours to create graceful and fragile mood pieces. ‘Ariel’ has old, soft, worn timbres for glowing chords that extend like a sapling in sunlight, while ‘Poppyseed’s soft surges induce a soporific state that awakens memories of the safety of the parental home. ‘Veil’ and ‘Samphire’, however, manage to recall the sensitive, inexplicable timidity that childhood can also cough up with their uncertain, sombre states. Not so much evoking memories as the concept of memory, Teal’s beautifully lustrous effect is like a hanging mobile made of family photos in a child’s bedroom, a gentle breeze from an open window choreographing its loose movements, as its details evaporate in a melancholic haze.

Drew Mulholland – The Norwood Variations

The Norwood Variations also deals in how "music, sound and the exploration of landscape can trigger memory", as Drew Mulholland, currently composer in residence at The University of Glasgow, put it on The Séance At Hobs Lane, his extraordinary album (as Mount Vernon Arts Lab) from 2001. Mulholland places his praxis where the borders of psychology, geography, memory, hauntology and the spirit of place meet; and it’s a position that works well with the convincing way in which his sound seeks a relationship between a place and what took place there over time; a kind of sonic dramatisation of psychogeographical theories. Previously, Mulholland’s music has nimbly featured traces of glitchy electronica, folk, power electronics and chamber music, but The Norwood Variations falls mainly in the latter quadrant. The Edinburgh Quartet perform three of the album’s compositions – ‘Sycamore (for L)’ has them plucking up an uncanny air of complex emotions with beautiful interjections on oboe from Siobhan Parker, ‘Stella Nova’ describes a marvellous, astrological quest with a sky of simmering strings in which chimes sparkle like stars; while ‘Gangen’, based on a map of East London where Mulholland spent his childhood, has jaunty passages of differing lengths to create a labyrinth of increasing complexity like a time-lapse view of history. The Madrigirls, a romantic a cappella trio, are employed on ‘Geographia Mundi’ where their choral style somehow signposts the unknown and indescribable aspects of landscape, but then the last two tracks on The Norwood Variations take a complete detour. ‘Memory & Mind’ is a surprising sound object, a piece of music concrète, whose cycles of crackling vinyl, and general knocks and movements are invaded by an arsenal of reversed sounds, from church bells to machine guns, like the fabled ‘life flashing before your eyes’ prior to death. Even more unexpectedly, the CD closes with a miniature lecture, titled ‘A Psychogeographical Reading’ whose unaccompanied spoken words potently propose Mulholland’s fascinating theory that seems to welcome the occult into science, an otherwise mutually exclusive blend.

Scorpion Bowl – B-sides 1978-1983

B-sides 1978-1983 is literally a work of fiction. Released earlier this year as the "last known recordings" by Scorpion Bowl, a Munich-based kosmische duo who describe themselves as "aggro ambient pioneers", it is supplemented by hilarious sleeve notes that tell the story of how Hans Felten, whose family sold him "during a period of extreme debt", met Otto Van Pandelay (what a name!), who was born deaf but later had his hearing restored, and formed Scorpion Bowl in 1975. It is most likely the work of Clade who released the disk, a somewhat anonymous duo, one based in Edinburgh, the other in San Francisco, whose two albums of heavy, ritualistic electronics and last year’s more Eno-esque Vietnamese Piano come highly recommended. The creative masque afforded by Scorpion Bowl, though, allows the pair to play dark, dramatic synth pomp without it affecting their perhaps more cultivated oeuvre. It opens with ‘Death Stalker’ – apparently an outtake from sessions for the Bowl’s third album, Sequencer Funk Factory, and firmly stakes its bad trip pastiche with brooding and churning electronics in which streaks of synth strings plough a hammy furrow. Eerie processed vocals crop up in tracks like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Castles Of Misery’ along with foley effects of tolling bells, sloshing steps and dragged chains helping to cultivate a 70s Euro-horror film vibe. This combination of bold synth escapades and prog pastiche is such fun – an all-too-rare word in the Rum Music Library – and the fiction is a canny tactic in a post-internet world where genuine legends are unlikely to form among the infinite fragments.

Skullflower: Draconis

(Cold Spring)

This latest release from the mighty Skullflower looks like an old book harbouring arcane knowledge with its large, seemingly cloth-bound cover embroidered with an esoteric symbol. What is enclosed, however, is two disks offering an hour and a half of Matthew Bower’s and Samantha Davies’ sublime sonic rites. While Bower has helmed the group since the eighties, for the past six or so years he has been joined by just Davies under a variety of guises (such as Voltigeurs, Black Sun Roof!) to produce consistently overwhelming works that both represent the awe inspired by natural landscapes – the epic feeling emanating from hills, mountains, rivers and waterfalls – and a complementary sense of a transformative process of transcendence or ego death. Draconis is perhaps the most potent, yet no less raw, manifestation of this spellbinding, infectious work. Their burning confusion of distorted guitars and violins kicks in as soon as play is pressed on ‘Cauda Draconis’ – perhaps deliberately named after the worst figure to draw in the occult science of geomatic divination – the initially harsh, but ultimately blissful chaos fills the room underscored by slow, mantric low notes while voices, most likely imagined, seem to emerge from the din. This formula roughly informs all eleven of Draconis’ pieces, but the deep levels of immersion welcomed by Bowers’ and Davies’ craft reveals distinct, buried patterns: ‘Dazed Nymph in the N.O.X.’ bears traces of an Indian raga bleeding through the buzzing, wildly phasing guitars, while ‘To Raise Wolves’ and particularly ‘Sunset Dreams’ seem to have the tonalities of an emergent droning bagpipe. The latter track has the cleanest sound on the album, its muted shivery shuffle carrying a ghost of a melody smeared upon the wind. Suitably, there’s hints at Thelemic Mysticism on some track titles and in the few words offered by the accompanying booklet, but, for an uninitiate like me, its Lovecraftian lore that the biting, wailing sounds tend to invoke – with each track on Draconis Skullflower create an abyss out of which roars indescribable beings. Lovecraft is quoted as having said "the process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination," and, for me, the process of delving into Draconis is the same.

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