Review: Ingrid Plum, Anton Mobin & Graham Dunning – Ancient Lights (Fort Evil Fruit, Mar 20)

I’ve often discussed the marked difference between directly recorded and reverb-filled, space-utilizing tabletop improvisation, and how artists’ work can fall into either category (or both). Like Dylan Burchett’s bread, the piece which most recently engendered this discussion, Ancient Lights seems to possess elements both internal and external, with a spectacular intensity that could only from these three mad sound-scientists at their eclectically equipped laboratory surfaces. Each participant is a formidable force in their own right: Ingrid Plum, accomplished improviser and performer, lends choice contributions from objects, Walkman, and utterance; Anton Mobin, master of his singular, lushly intimate style of théâtre d’objets, amplifies and broadcasts miniature percussive events from his prepared chamber; and Graham Dunning, dedicated sound artist and educator, bewilders (as usual) with his virtuosic extended turntable techniques. This well-controlled mess of machinery takes a while to emerge from the recording which begins “Frame Makers,” which one might think captures the sound of audience members and the surrounding locale during the music’s recording—but all of Ancient Lights was documented in the controlled studio environment of Sound Savers in Hackney. This is just one of many instances in which field recordings and other disparate intrusions are used to play around with physical space in its communicative form, when a somber, wordless croon or distant clunk greases the already precarious surfaces of churning cogs and rotating plates.

Review: Asumaya – Of Water, Land, & Sky (Dagoretti, Mar 17)

When attempting to capture the essence of a particular place, one might think that too much intrusion on the part of the observer would be a hindering force. But in my opinion, interaction is one of many elements in the phonographer’s toolbox which allow them to present a sonic document that is truly their own. I don’t know much about Luke Bassuener’s project Asumaya, or whether Of Water, Land, & Sky is a significantly new direction for him, but the detailed and considered rhythmic abstractions of nature that comprise it are a delight nonetheless. The album was produced during a residency program of the same name in partnership with the Glacial Lakes Conservancy, and sees Bassuener plundering a wide array of organic sound objects (collected in the Willow Creek Preserve in Wisconsin) to create whimsical dance grooves. Birdsong, splashing water, and gusts of wind play prominent roles in the simple yet still meticulously constructed compositions; Bassuener sometimes focuses in on the anatomies of certain sounds, like when he isolates the familiar clunk of something heavy being dropped into water on “Streamed,” and other times seems more interested in portraying a comprehensive picture of his surroundings, like on “Marshed.” While rhythmic experimental music is often not my preference, I’ve seen how compelling similar approaches to Bassuener’s can be on tracks like lojii’s “Run It Down” (produced by Marc Rebillet), and the infectious woodland symphonies of this new Asumaya release are a pleasing escape in these decidedly claustrophobic times.

Review: Staubitz and Waterhouse – Alone Together (self-released, Mar 16)

As more and more of the U.S. locks down in response to COVID-19 with business closures and stay-at-home orders, artists whose work examines the mundane and the domestic become more important than ever. The new duo of Rhode Island improvisers and sound artists Mary Staubitz and Russ Waterhouse has already provided me with an early favorite of the year with their self-titled lathe on Gertrude Tapes, and several digital-only tracks have also been released on their newly created Bandcamp page, notably the 22-minute “Alone Together.” The sound materials for this piece were gathered in Virginia and Rhode Island in 2019 and were assembled just before its release. Consistent with the curiously warbled workaday of the 7″ and the blurred pastel colors of the cover artwork, “Alone Together” presents a familiar yet slightly uncanny vignette of reality. The field recordings sound largely unprocessed, but at every moment there seems to be something that just isn’t quite right: the clinical isolation of the bug chatter that begins the piece; how surrounding the peculiar drone to which everything strips down are barely audible clunks and vibrations that give just the faintest sense of physical place; the way the sound objects in the subdued remainder of the track seem to be organized in slightly the wrong order, like puzzle pieces that sort of, but don’t completely fit together; the startling entry of the amplified nature sounds that conclude the piece. The credits of “Alone Together” also reveal an interesting aspect of its creation; Staubitz captured all of the recordings while Waterhouse performed the edit. This is an interesting dynamic for a duo, and I’m excited to see that they’re experimenting with various approaches (they also have a short live performance available for stream and download).

Review: Nac/Hut Report – Transmisja Z Przesilenia (Crunchy Human Children, Mar 15)

Almost exactly one year after the release of 2019’s Wszystko Jeszcze Jest (though it has been 365 days), Krakow duo Nac/Hut Report is back with another full-length studio release. Listeners familiar with the fractured “nightmare-pop” of last year’s album will feel right at home once Transmisja Z Przesilenia settles in; though the space traversed between formless abstraction and cathartic noise pop melodies seems wider than ever, everything about this new cassette seems perfect for the strange times in which we’re living. J.T.’s sleepy, barely-intelligible vocals float like ghost freighters on a stormy sea of distorted guitar, siren-like electronic emissions, and restless effects loops, drifting from track to track without much concern for any clear separation between them. This isn’t an issue at all for Transmisja Z Przesilenia, however; its sharply saccharine essence seems to consume time itself with licorice jaws and candy-corn teeth, until beginning and end are the only distinctions that matter. Certainly, there are some memorable moments that may make the listener aware of what song they’re actually listening to— “Króliki” and “Trzecia Część Dnia” were clear favorites of mine—but everything flows so well together that these might as well be anomalously large waves on that aforementioned ocean, the dark stretch of roiling dream-world on which we travel between one shore of reality to the next (or do we end on the same one from which we left?).

Review: Triple Negative – God Bless the Death Drive (Penultimate Press, Mar 12)

Precious Waste in Our Wake, the mysterious UK collective Triple Negative’s debut LP from last year, was and is many things: one of my favorite releases of 2019, the oddest and most compelling contemporary remnant of circa-1980 avant-rock explorations, a fittingly surreal soundtrack to our progressively deteriorating society and world. God knows what sort of headspace these mysterious magic-molders place themselves in to create this bizarre and befuddling music, but there seems to be no shortage in its supply because another full-length declaration has already surfaced less than a year later. When God Bless the Death Drive is said to “literally [take] off where… Precious Waste in our Wake finished,” it’s pretty much accurate; the mastering is louder and clearer, and “Bad Grace” begins with a propulsive, bouncing gallop of minimal percussion and blown-out vocalizing that does contrast with the drugged-out lethargy of the grooves on its predecessor, but listen to the two back to back and the momentum transfer is undeniable—”MERCURIAL SEAL / SINKINGSINKING SUNK” and “Bad Grace,” despite sounding markedly different, continue into one another. It’s a nice touch that meaningfully links the albums despite the new direction that God Bless takes. With bone-dry guitar tones and dusty, windswept percussion recordings, songs like “Bad Emotional Investments” become worn, sun-cracked psychedelic ballads, while the apocalyptic strings and winds on “Pugno Di Mosche” and distant churn of “Low Noon” allow some of the familiar smog to seep in. A soothing accordion and intimate vocals even make “Fine Cargo Lacquer”—dare I say—pretty. The level of coherence across God Bless the Death Drive is variable, to say the least, and this range makes it even more difficult to fully digest. The three-track stretch of “See It Slay It Sordid,” “Nag Head’s Spools,” and “Your Pretty Mental Health…” alone is a dense Twin Infinitivestier conundrum. At first I found myself thinking, well this is not what I expected, but I quickly realized that’s a stupid thing to even consider when Triple Negative is at work. As Mark Harwood states, you can always rely on their music to possess a “robust fear of the predictable.”

Review: Alex Maerbach – Will the Low E Still Be There Once You’ve Come Down? (Orb Tapes, Mar 16)

The Middle Ages was a strange time for a great deal of reasons, not the least of which is the bizarre medical theories and practices that were used. Leech treatments, bloodletting, trepanation, astrology-based anatomy, and who knows what else are all pretty horrifying, but what always unsettled me the most was the idea of the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) that must be kept in balance in order for an individual to be healthy. Such a spectacularly incorrect and misguided conception about the human body makes me uneasy, but admittedly also a bit intrigued. Composer and bandleader Alex Maerbach might have had a similar reaction when he was inspired to create Will the Low E Still Be There Once You’ve Come Down?, a self-described “rumination on the IV humors, medieval pseudoscience, alchemy [and] gnosticism.” The music on this C60 is just as unusual as the cover design, and seems to function, structurally, in a similar way as well; skulking drones and drifting fuzz occupy grayish liminal spaces before more conventional stretches of instrumentation materialize, the arrangements sounding somewhere between composition and improvisation as a drum set, double bass, accordion, singing saw, and brass cascade and careen off each other. The acoustic formations on “Melancholic” sound medieval enough, but “Sanguine” leaves the feudal folk behind in favor of heavens-reaching, atmospheric post-rock jams. The latter track just sort of… dissolves into a gossamer drift, languid clouds of space dust that linger until a soothing recording of waves ushers in some whimsical, yet slightly somber string plucks, led by the haunting hollow of a mandolin (most likely played by Maerbach himself). The monstrous final track “Choleric + Phlegmatic” ambles on a cosmic scale, its threads of rock music submerged within a dense smog of nebulae, but the electric currents are once again tempered by the arrival of a devotional folk reprieve—that in turn gives way to meandering electronic detritus. By summarizing these long, patient tracks I make it sound like the transitions are whiplash-inducing, but the exact opposite is true; nothing throughout Low E is rushed or unpleasant. It’s perfect calming music for the undesirable situation of having your cranium viciously stabbed by a dagger.

Review: Согра – Кудрявая кассета (Sketchbook Sounds, Mar 11)

I don’t speak or read Russian, and as we all know Google Translate can be pretty suspect, but to the best of my knowledge the single phrase that adorns the page for Кудрявая кассета roughly translates to “a few jammed moments…,” which seems pretty appropriate (the title itself means “curly cassette”). From what I can discern, Согра (“Sogra” in English) is one of the many aliases of sound artist Vitaly Maklakov, who also releases music as Light Collapse, Obozdur, Corpuscle, and many other monikers. Far from the subversive lo-fi wall noise of his untitled CD on Perpetual Abjection a month ago, Maklakov’s new digital release for The Sketchbook Sounds (which may or may not be also run by him) consists of more than a few jammed moments; it’s a set of two 25-minute tracks of soupy tape manipulation and effects pedal fuckery, materializing in some elusive no-man’s land between earthy and ethereal. “A” begins with a torrent of looping feedback that steadily becomes fuzzier and quirkier before dissolving into an undammed flow of indiscernible tape recordings and hiss, a hypnotic current within which time seems to stand still. The ascending and descending layers of “B” are even more fitting for the release’s titular quality, as tendrils of warbly electronica twist and tangle around each other.