Under the Arches of Her Voice | Socrates Martinis

Hailing from Athens, Greece, sound artist Socrates Martinis presents Under the Arches of Her Voice. The album is a six-part rumination of rough-hewn sound, with each part acting as a snapshot of an unidentifiable sonic environment. Martinis’ tools are simple yet effective, employing field recordings and “found sound” (the latter of which I’ve always found comically vague as a source material credit. Nice ring to it though). Compositionally, Martinis’ approach is gratifyingly to the point, mostly opting out of the use of gradual fading at the beginning and end of tracks. In terms of transitions, the pieces turn on a dime, not only from one track to another, but within the songs themselves, which makes the fact that this is split into six parts feel not particularly important.

Restlessly, Martinis changes the direction of a given piece before it fully settles. Normally, I’ve found the decision to cut quick and short as detrimental to this type of music, but Martinis achieves a healthy degree of success with it here, and I think it’s due to how the micro-movements that make up this music all seem to complement each other well. More artists working in the realm of field recording are embracing an approach to composition that Martinis employs here, namely, a grittier, drone-based sound pocked with quick transitions that can lend the music a touch of authority when done right. Considering the entirety of Under the Arches of Her Voice, the album could have achieved the level of, say, Patrick Farmer & David Lacey’s Pell Mell the Prolixa like-minded work that I reviewed earlier in the yearbut stacked up against it feels overly constricted.

When honing in on any given track, Martinis’ strengths become more apparent, as it’s clear that his ear is finely tuned to his environments. Even when his naturally captured sounds are bathed in layers of hiss and sonic grime, there is an unmistakable feeling of open space. It could be that I’m picking up on the natural reverb from his recording areas, or it’s the sounds that tend to creep into the mix that hint at space, like the barely audible classical music that exists deep in the background of the fifth songsounds like the music happened to be playing somewhere in the background. Not shockingly, the longer of the album’s tracks provide the most interesting variety, like part two, “…Happiness Smells Like an Orange,” whose vignettes shift from crude and subdued noise to churning, weather-beaten drones and back again. Are these the voices emerging from cavernous ventilation shafts or are we hearing some arcanely processed recordings of wind? Could very well be both. Without a doubt, the allure is in the mystery.

Available now: Organized Music From Thessaloniki.

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The Art of Reduction | Yan Jun & Ben Owen’s Swimming Salt

A tube amp warming up. The final stretch of an unwinding cassette tape. A radio with the dial set between stations. For most of us, if not simply the musically inclined, these are but three of the many familiar variations in static sound. Hiss, crackle, buzz, drone, fizzle, hum, whir, whatever you might call it, the liminal sounds of existence are one of life’s constants. These static sounds rarely blip the conscious mind of those unaware of their musical potency. To certain artists, however, these sounds hold the potential to be made alive, transcending a byproduct status that’s resulted from the second nature interactions between humans and machines.

Yan Jun and Ben Owen are two artists who not only recognize the potential in liminal sounds, but have adeptly harnessed that potential over their careers to create innovative and evocative music. Using a reductionist palette of controlled feedback, electronics, amps, and radio, Jun and Owen ease into a composition for approachable noise. Over its course, Swimming Salt balances piercing feedback with an ever-present crackle. As the title suggests, the work is like the sensory equivalent to an epsom salt bath, enveloping the listener in a blanket of simmering electronics. Eventually, parts of the blanket succumb to the void, allowing room for silent stretches that give the clinical tones an added weight when they are eventually reintroduced.

Ben Owen resides in Brooklyn, New York, while Jun, it appears, floats between Vienna, Taipei and Yokohama. While each player has surely been influenced by their respective locales, this collaboration remains geographically indistinctout of context I wouldn’t be overly confident that this even came from Earth. More importantly, Swimming Salt continues to prove these two artists’ respective aptitudes for keeping things interesting. Owen, who also possesses a strong fascination with field recording, and Jun, who is one of the more unpredictable and eccentric Chinese voices in the experimental arena, use their collaborative chops to fuse a mutual interest in the power of unencumbered sound. And Swimming Salt, to these ears, is exactly the kind of work I would hope for when bearing in mind this noble pursuit.

Available now from Organized Music From Thessaloniki.

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Elevator Bath Presents | An Evocation of Anatomies

With today’s near world-wide ubiquity of the internet, the possibilities for musical collaboration are far greater than they used to be. These days, artists living thousands of miles apart can produce something together, usually by some form of digital file transfer–or, if you’re old school, I guess you could mail tapes back and forth. There is, however, something to be said about the virtues of face-to-face collaboration.

EEAOA043_JACKETColin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie – Essential Anatomies
(Elevator Bath, 2017)

When like-minded musicians gather in the same room and play together, there is a magic that can happen, a gelling of vision and sound that can only really materialize from this kind of setting. Colin Andrew Sheffield and James Eck Rippie seem to understand this concept well. After beginning their musical partnership in Dallas, Texas, Sheffield soon moved across the country–over 2,000 miles–to Seattle, Washington. The move put the duo’s work on ice, but since Sheffield’s return to Texas years later, the two artists found themselves working together again.

Essential Anatomies is the product of the duo’s return to the collaborative stage. At over an hour and a half, the album sees the pair recontextuatizing “commercially available recordings.” What these recordings were to begin with is beyond me, as the audio is manipulated and deconstructed heavily from its original form. The presence of Rippie’s turntable lends the work an occasional likeness to GUM–an improv duo from the late 80s that operated in similar bare-bones plunderphonic–though him and Sheffield pare things back even further, lending credence to the album’s title.

By way of furtive pockets of noise and dark abstractions of previously recorded songs, Sheffield and Rippie create a flowing musical dialogue that reimagines turntablism in subtler ways. Essential Anatomies relies heavily on atmospherics over concrete forms, though recognizable timbres from familiar instruments do occasionally rise to the mix’s surface, like the horns that grace the album’s pensive closing track, or the piano that crops up all throughout track 2. And although these two artists forego anything resembling a traditional narrative, I do get a sense of an underlying intention at the music’s core, a likely byproduct of an inherent understanding of balance and pacing. There’s not much worse than experimental music that shows little intent and goes nowhere. Essential Anatomies certainly avoids such pitfalls.

Originally, the album was released in the form of two limited run tapes, which are now out of print. Scrutinized under the scope of four tracks played in succession as opposed to just two, the duo’s skillful restraint and consistent sound reveal themselves a little more. With this said, it’s a pleasure to have all four tracks available again as a single release, and on vinyl, nonetheless. As always, excellent work by way of Elevator Bath.

Elevator Bath Presents | Missives From Foreign Lands

Closing in on two decades now, Jim Haynes has worked scrupulously to mine the deep wells and various crevices of his singular artistic statement: “I rust things.” Impressively, in his pursuit of the ideas embedded in that phrase, new pathways keep presenting themselves, and Haynes is quick to explore them. I can’t help but wonder whether or not the artist himself anticipated the type of yield he’s received from this dedicated pursuit. Who knows? maybe that’s exactly the kind of thinking that would hold him up. Either way, artistically speaking, in a blink it seems Haynes has added up enough small, deliberate steps forward to have traversed a small mountain range; a distance not unscathed by his excavation of the phenomenologically abstruse.

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Jim Haynes – Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands
(Elevator Bath, 2016)

On Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands, Jim Haynes brings the dead back to life. Using primarily short-wave radio receivers, electro-magnetic disturbances were captured within the negative space of dilapidated Soviet-era war structures. The end result is some of the best work I’ve heard from the man, but I can only imagine the type of record he could have produced if his initial vision of picking up disturbances from “weird Soviet power transformers” or “fluctuations from shitty wiring” weren’t thwarted by a lack of electricity throughout the region. Although, as any artist will likely tell you, limitation, deliberate or otherwise, could very well be the key to a project’s success.

Something I’ve come to appreciate about the way Haynes describes his music is that he never shies away from citing his influences, in that listening to an artist’s work he respects seems to help put him into a desired frame of mind for his own music. Just yesterday I noticed in the liner notes for Mount Eerie‘s most recent album (not at all in the same ballpark musically) that both Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and Will Oldham’s Arise Therefore were cited by Phil Elverum as blueprints for its creation; one could say affirmation, really, for channeling the feelings and emotions around the death of a loved one into art.

Haynes cites Robert Ashley’s “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” and, not surprisingly, Nurse With Wound’s recontextualizations of similar sounds, as compositional influences on the album. The B side, “Electric Speech: Nadiya” certainly bears a resemblance to Ashley’s piece, not only compositionally, but sonically as well. The Haynes piece’s focus is that of a female voice, fragmented and distorted, uttering indecipherable words from a foreign language. Haynes’ use of silence here only accentuates the listener’s anticipation between the snippets of sound. With a keen ear one can also pick up on some of the artist’s signature sonic devices, like the long wire drones that populated his early work.

The three tracks that make up the A side are more direct, channeling a sound more inline with the current direction of Haynes’ work, gritty and noisy. With any of the man’s albums, however, noise is never without its sonic and emotional relief, and Flammable Materials… too, has much in the way of slow-wielding, haunting minimalism. This, coupled with a now seasoned ear for sonorous expression in the way of all things tactile, rust-laden and decayed, Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands makes for one very, very fine listening experience .

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From Tandem Tapes: Makunouchi Bento / Somnoroase Păsărele

Makunouchi Bento : Somnoroase Păsărele

Makunouchi Bento / Somnoroase Păsărele
(Tandem Tapes, 2017)

This week’s submission comes all the way from the DIY cassette label Tandem Tapes, based in Jakarta, Indonesia. As the name suggests, Tandem’s focus is split releases, and their most current, that also happened to make its way to my doorstep, is from a pair of Romanian projects: Makunouchi Bento and Somnoroase Păsărele. It’s housed in a simple yet elegant b&w j-card with strange cover artwork that looks like a landscape collage with a small house and maybe a moonrise in the background. Home dubbed on Ferro/Type 1 tapes in a mere edition of 25. Hard to believe one could even be spared for review.

It would take only a slight familiarity with tape labels of this kind to know that one is in for some esoteric sounds here. Some of the world’s most interesting and challenging music is spawned out of the cassette underground, but I’ve unfortunately been out of the loop with the movement for some time now, so it was very nice to have this gem arrive. A small part of me feared that I was in for an overdose of uninspired noise, of which there are countless tapes out there, but one minute into Makunouchi Bento’s piece vanquished any such fear.

The Bento in this box is the duo of Felix Petrescu and Valentin Toma, who seem to have come a long way since doing their part in pioneering Romanian IDM. Their music here is likely not too far removed from those early days, albeit I sense it’s become more skeletal with time. The piece is a skittering, gently unfolding fusion of dark ambient and electroacoustics. An effected or modified flute, and micro-percussive elements float through the track over a swath of wavering drones. The mood of this work is worth noting, at very least for how it seems to effortlessly enfold the listener in creepiness, never threatening but always lurking around the bend.

Somnoroase Păsărele’s piece picks up seamlessly from the A side’s close, and although he immediately seems unsure of its direction–maneuvering through a bit of a clunky portion for electrified strings–it soon settles down and finds its footing. The tape’s final quarter, specifically, is its finest stretch, as Păsărele dials in a compelling blurred-edge synthesis into one of those grooves that can mess with one’s perception of time. Very nice. Great to have these artists on my radar now, along with this modest yet spirited label.

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Sala – Scare Me Not

Scare me not, scare me not. One can almost hear Audrius Simkunas, aka Sala, muttering these words to himself like a reassuring mantra, standing alone in the depths of a great, mysterious forest. Memory plays a predominant role in Unfathomless releases, but few seem to encapsulate childhood fear as well as Scare Me Not. It is not that the recordings here are especially sinister, or creepy, but that there is a looming mysteriousness about them, as if, at any moment the boogey man might rear his ugly head. I’d argue that Simkunas isn’t saying we should all face our fears already, but that maybe fear is an important part of our memory, that it plays some pivotal role in human development. In any regard, Scare Me Not provides ample space to mull it over.

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From the number of albums I’ve heard that come from Lithuania, the place seems brimming with abandoned war era locations. Inspiring for field recordists, these sites beckon their reawakening through sound, and it was one of these locations where Simkunas found his inspiration for Scare Me Not. Using the cavernous space of bygone, rusty objects as his base note, Simkunas reigns in sounds from his surrounding environment. Bird song is the first thing that is heard, appropriately enough, as birds are the true commencers of the day. The remaining environment is introduced very slowly, a short, bellowing drone here, the soft shuffling of human activity there.

Things pick up around the 15 minute mark, where three or four different sound sources coalesce into a soupy alien soundscape. It’s hard to say how Simkunas achieved a lot of these sounds, perhaps with some specialized sensitive sound equipment. He seems to allude to something of the nature on his description of the work, referencing “esoteric surgical instruments of sonar knowledge extracting,” whatever that means. Later on, around 19 minutes in, there is a pleasing, higher register tone that undulates in the background, acting as a nice counter to the more tactile elements. Reminds me a bit of Ora.

Unfortunately, Scare Me Not peaks a little early, and I’m not entirely convinced that it warrants it’s 65 minute run-time. The 20 minute second part meditates a little too heavily on a drone that sounds like someone leaned a guitar against an amp and walked away. However, there is more going on to the piece then that one uninspired drone, and Simkunas is smart enough to have more than a single element at play at any given time, keeping things interesting. I can’t imagine returning to this work too often, but it is an interesting album nonetheless, if not at least for the unique sounds and feelings it conjures up.

Rihards Bražinskis & Raitis Upens – Aldaris

Here is the first of two new submissions from the phonography focused label Unfathomless. Founded and run by the tireless Daniel Crokaert, Unfathomless challenges sound artists to create work based around a physical space. As Crokaert puts it, the work should evoke the spirit of a specific place, “crowded with memories, its auras and resonances and our intimate interaction with it…” As of now, Unfathomless seems to be taking precedence over its sister label, Mystery Sea (also run by Crokaert), likely because it seems to allow for a more diverse output, expanding on the dark ocean drones that populate the Mystery Sea releases.

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For the better part of last year I spent my time working as a bartender for a brewery in Vancouver’s “Yeast Van” brewery district. Although most of my time there was dedicated to front of house, I got to know the basics of the beer making process as well. As someone with more than a fleeting interest in field recording and sound, I was frequently enamoured by the strange and enriching sounds that came from the process of brewing beer. Whether it was the bubbling and churning from the boil, the vacuous pings from the inside of empty tanks and kegs, or the hissing drones from Carbon dioxide canisters, there was a lot of intriguing sound to get lost in.

Rihards Bražinskis and Raitis Upens take this idea and run with it. On Aldaris, the two captured recordings from a 150 year old brewery in Riga, Latvia, and wove them into a 36 minute sound piece. According to the Unfathomless site, the duo were given freedom to interact with the 80-year-old beer kettles, which, no doubt allowed for a substantially richer final product. From the opening seconds it sounds like the two making use of these kettles, as slowly, bass-heavy creaks and rumbles fill out a pleasant low-end. From here the sound only intensifies, reaching a small earthquake-like magnitude by the 7 minute mark.

In my experience with field recording work, the most potent albums abide by, more or less, one of two artistic approaches. Either a work is steadfast in its use of explicitly unaltered, unprocessed field recordings, or, moderate liberties are taken in editing and processing as a way to accent a given work. On the other hand, albums of this type that heavily obscure the source of their sounds really don’t do it for me.

Bražinskis and Upens avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handedness. Their editing approach seems to respect that their audience has the patience to hear how Aldaris subtly shifts over its duration. The transitions here are especially choice, namely the punctuated blasts of soft noise that guide the piece into its second movement (starting at 7:59). The album’s mid-section, with its skittering, almost free-jazz like tactility and haunting, fever-pitched drones, evokes all the feeling of being squarely within an ancient ruin. Or, in the case of Aldaris, speaks to a great industry that has risen and fallen, and a land that is forever at the mercy of time’s reclamation.