Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Many of us live in a state of near constant self-imposed sonic stimulation. We are forever talking on cellphones or listening to ipods, rushing from place to place with music and podcasts and satellite radio and videos streaming on our tablets. Meanwhile the world goes on around us. The irony of this is if one knows how to listen to the world - the real world - one can often find a soundtrack equally rich and stimulating and beautiful to anything we can think to cram onto our mp3 players. Ernst Karel - a sound artist and musician from Chicago - demonstrates this truth with jaw dropping aplomb on his latest release, "Swiss Mountain Transport System." The title of this album says it all. At close to 80 minutes in length, Karel offers his listeners a number of unprocessed field recordings taken on various gondolas, funiculars, and chairlifts in the mountains of Switzerland - from ancient, creaking gondolas to whirring, highspeed chairlifts. That's it. No instruments, no electronic processing, no synthesizers or oscillators or guitar feedback. And yet, despite that, Karel has created one of the most gorgeous, engaging, and fascinating albums of the year. It also happens to work almost perfectly as a drone or minimalist noise album. Through Karel's carefully positioned microphones, these means of mountain conveyance can be heard as accidental electro-mechanical music boxes, an entire world of sound contained in each car. They drone, they are percussive, they amplify and refract and echo and encase sound. Wires ring and reverberate, gears rumble and click, doors creak and whoosh. The mechanical and industrial intersects with other elements of the world - murmured voices across platforms, a peal of church bells off in the distance, a clang of cow bells, a clattering of helicopter rotors, frigid gusts of wind.
As Karel captures it, these unprocessed, unorchestrated sounds - largely mechanical and man-made but nonetheless "organic" in that they belong firmly to a lived environment, integrated in with the natural, and are not created as an end in themselves as with music or intentionally crafted sounds but rather exist as a part of the man/nature soundscape that is a byproduct of a world inhabited by living beings - are immensely affective and evocative. For an album that seems to be about movement, about traversing space, these recordings are incredibly successful not because they are beautiful - though they absolutely are - but because they evoke the mountains and they evoke transportation through that rugged terrain in a remarkably lucid way.
Recorded in stereo with multiple mics, this album truly comes to life when heard through a decent set of headphones. The sound envelopes the listener and we are whisked away through the Alps as Karel's recordings convey with remarkable clarity a sense of distance, of movement, of sound as it's really heard, in the real world. A collection of pure field recordings, it is perhaps ironic that in order to hear - as Karel has captured it - not only the utter beauty in the perpetual sonic landscape that surrounds us but also its incredible, inherent musicality that we must sit and listen closely, headphones firmly donned, without distraction. But one of the things that's so special about this album is that once you listen to it in this way, once you recognize the richness and depth of the world of sound that exists outside our headphones and in the most unexpected of places (we don't think of funiculars and gondolas as being all that interesting as such), it's possible to start discovering similar depth in places one experiences daily and simply never pauses to think about twice. As with all important and truly successful art, "Swiss Mountain Transport System" can radically alter the way one perceives the world.
Be warned: this album requires a good deal of patience. Many will find it boring but for those really willing to sit with it, its rewards continue to unfold listen after listen. It's refreshingly direct - a rarity in our world of ultra-processed music - and restrained, elegant and as simple as can be. At the same time, it's deeper and more nuanced than pretty much anything I've heard in a long while. A completely essential listen, one I cannot recommend highly enough.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Svarte Greiner is the solo project of Norway's Erik K. Skodvin, perhaps better known as one-half of Deaf Center. For years now, Skodvin has been taking cello, electronics, tape, and what sounds like mic'd scrap metal and turning out haunted soundscapes, blackened to a pitch, steeped in nightmares, owing, it seems, a huge debt to our primal fear of things that go bump in the night. Earlier this year, Deaf Center put out their newest album, the obliquely titled Owl Splinters, and included with a limited number of the first pressing a bonus CD. Type, the label that put out Owl Splinters, has gotten into the habit of doing this, rewarding fans who manage to snap up a copy of many of their albums before they inevitable go out of print and start selling for four times the original price on discogs and ebay. Recent LPs by Yellow Swans, Richard Skellton, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, and Rene Hell to name just a few all had free bonus CDs. It's a really wonderful trend, especially since these bonus CDs are far from random, cast-off freebies; Generally they account for enough music to constitute a wholly separate album. That's certainly the case here with Twin, Owl Splinter's bonus CD containing a single, nearly 46-minute track from Skodvin under the Svarte Greiner moniker. It's hard to tell but this piece may be a reworking of material from Owl Splinters. In any event, it's entirely it's own beast and probably the best thing Svarte Greiner has done to date.
Twin starts off with an oceanically deep loop of droning processed cello. It almost sounds like the solemn chanting of a long forgotten sect of Alpine monks huddled in their frost encrusted monasteries hewn from the mountains themselves. This loop builds upon itself, adding dimensions, taking on a ragged edge, pulsing with sinister harmonics, fraying tendrils of static, a sawing rasp of tangled feedback. The intensity rises through the first third, eerie and laden with menace, the sound, perhaps, of a fractured and ever-disintegrating world. At the same time it is an ancient, almost primal sound. This isn't music for the end of the world by machines; rather it is the soundtrack to the terror of night and the unknown violence therein surely felt by our early ancestors, cavemen praying for a splinter of flint to throw - even for a moment, even if just a spark - some light into the perpetual black. A slowly heaving, wailing, crumbling, roaring pulse of drone washes over the listener.
Around the 16-minute mark, things change. The bellow and roar of the first third is gone. A siren-like sweep of electronics washes out over an utterly desolate expanse of ghostly ambiance. A tangle of murmuring, chaotically bowed strings rises and falls through a dank mist of analog murk - reminiscent of Xela's The Sublime but less minimal, more deeply layered. Percussion like snapping tree limbs, rusted metal on rusted metal, creaking door hinges is woven into this tapestry or sound
Twin's final third is almost suffocatingly intense. Loops of decaying cello, a funereal organ, disintegrating bits of tape and static - dissolving audio detritus threaded throughout. The final minutes are all organ in full dirge, long forgotten radios playing out their final, static-ridden moments of life. It's black as pitch, an apocalyptic, scorched earth blast to sing us into oblivion.
And yet, despite all this, Twin is exceptionally beautiful. Bleak, yes, but it's clearly the work of a master craftsman. Immensely affective and evocative, fans of drone, noise, and even modern and avant-garde classical alike should give this a serious listen.
Included in the download are some other rare Svarte Greiner goodies. Rips of the Ragsokk and Depardieu 7"s from 2006, plus a track from the SMM: Context compilation put out by Ghostly International last year and the 18-minute long "A Night Without Harm," a live recording from early 2007. Nightmares for everyone!!
I don't know much about Saint Yorda - or anything really - other than one of the members of the band is named Kevin and he sent me this link. I'm pretty sure "Some Songs That We Recorded With Cathal" isn't an album title and this is more or less a collection of songs but it's well worth a listen in any case. If you live in the North East, autumn is officially underway and this collection of songs is perfect for the season. Languid and cool, a bit foggy, these songs make a great soundtrack to chilly, gray fall days like these. There are vocals with some wavering echo and reverb, skeletal electronic beats and a scattering of bleeps and bloops - syncopated, almost danceable in a kind of codeine-induced way (especially on the track "Sakawa Boys"). Some of the band's influences seem pretty clear. Beach House fans will fall in love with a lot of these tunes. The track "Ocean" quavers and thrums like a Grouper track. "Death Ray" sounds a heck of a lot like more recent Radiohead tracks in the best possible way. "Surf Song" is just that - a very surf-y track but more along the lines of something Julian Lynch or possibly even Dirty Beaches might turn out with an ultra-simple drum machine loop adding percussion. "Yr Bones" is a mournful, synth heavy song, reminiscent of a sad song off a soundtrack to a John Waters movies. None of which is to say the band is mimicking these artists. Saint Yorba definitely has a sound of its own but it's one that cuts across a bunch of genres that other artists have colonized. In any event, it's well worth a listen. Check out some of their tunes below and follow the link to their bandcamp page where there's more to hear and download.