Chris Watson - Weather Report
Chris Watson, once part of Caberet Voltaire and The Halfer Trio, has taken his microphones and recorders and vanished into the wilderness. Since parting ways with experimental electronic music, Watson has been capturing the sonics of the natural world as a sound recorder for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. His records and contributions to compilations have been slices of elemental life, usually involving patterns of wind and animal sounds. His work teeters on the edge of the eternal dicusssion: what, exactly, qualifies as music? If you bring in Brian Eno's moment of clarity when he realized exactly what "ambient music" was (music intended to be present but ignored), the definition gets even harder to pin down.
One can argue that the presence of a composer is necessary for a work to be considered music. Unlike other field recordings that he has done, Watson actually compresses the time duration of the recordings in Weather Report down to eighteen minutes. These three pieces aren't accurate renderings of spacial environments; they have become artistic interpretations -- encapsulated snapshots of time and space. Is it pop music? Certainly not. Is it an ambient soundtrack which colors and transforms your local space into something else? Definitely.
For eighteen minutes, I'm lost on the African plain of Masai Mara. There are lions coughing in the foreground, a group of Masai pass before the rainfall and even the deluge which spatters the ground with fat drops can't hide the natural course of prey and predator which passes across the face of Watson's mikes. "Ol-Olool-O" moves from hot summer day to late afternoon thundershower to the muggy cicada chorus of the humid evening. I'm a city dweller, locked into passages of concrete, rebar and chrome. I yearn for the jungles and the veldts. For eighteen minutes, I get to spend a day in Africa. This isn't ambient music; this is active participation in some other place.
The liner notes of Weather Report are a succint mission statement: "The weather has created and shaped all our habitats. Clearly it has also had a profound and dynamic effect upon our lives and that of other animals. The three locations featured here all have moods and characters which are made tangible by these elements, and these periodic events are represented within by a form of time compression."
While "Ol-Olool-O" compressed fourteen hours, "The Lapaich" summarizes four months of the shifting environments of a Scottish glen as the year moves from autumn into winter. Water rushes over dark rocks, a cascading river which has filled and jumped the narrow spring bed. Several varities of bird make noise from the overhanging branches. Time shifts and the ruddy banks of the river become dry and the winds begin to howl across the empty stones. The bird noises change as the summer dwellers vanish into the south and all that remains are the hardier birds, the artic avians who ride the cold drafts. As winter progresses, the sounds die away: the winds vanish and the birds roost elsewhere. Eventually, all that you are left with is the subtle sound of seasonal creep.
Glacial creep is the time frame for the final aural journey. "Vatnajökull" is the 10,000 year journey of ice formed within the dark interior of an Icelandic glacier as it slowly -- oh so slowly -- crawls into the Norwegian Sea. You are submerged into the groaning, creaking subterranean pit of blue-black darkness and the endless pressure of ice against ice sounds like nothing more than the creaking of ancient wood. At some point, all this compression starts a hallucination in your brain, an imagined moaning of a spectral wind as if there was breath being forced between the ice crystals of this immense glacier. Something moves in the water beside you and you can't stop the thought racing in your head: how can there be free-standing water inside a block of frozen ice? By the time a mammoth piece calves off into the ocean and the echo of its impact reaches you, your hallucinations and mental perambulations have formed music -- woodwinds blown by errant creatures who exist as barely more than a breath of cold air. The ice spits you out finally, your oubliette of impacted snow suddenly rupturing and spilling you out onto the tempestuous seas. There, lying sprawled on a flat iceberg slowly turning away from the thundering edge of the fragmenting glacier, you are discovered by the wildlife which thrives at the edge of the white cliff. The terns and the eider ducks wheel and plume over you, squawking and shouting at your sudden appearance. Seals surface nearby in surprise, blowing water and air across you in a fine spray of seal mucus and expelled water. The sun is hot above you; the ice cold beneath you. You have been born from icy darkness.
As much as I love seeing the weather, I enjoy hearing it more which isn't terribly surprising for an aurally oriented child such as myself. Eno's ephiphany on the nature of musical environments is the only hard and fast rule by which I listen: what you hear has an impact on your environment and on you. I can change everything by changing the music. Chris Watson's Weather Report is my cheap getaway vacation: I can change my location without moving from my seat. This is a virtual travelogue to exotic places untouched by the din of the urban landscape.
Keith Fullerton Whitman - Antithesis
Keith Fullerton Whitman, operating as himself instead of his IDM personality Hrvatski, offers us a retrospective tour of his ensemble works with Antithesis. A long tone collection of four drone poems crafted strictly from real instruments, Antithesis spans the last decade of Whitman's Boston-based career as each track was recorded in a different apartment. Different spaces, different times, and only the long tone remains a persistent thread throughout the time period.
Antithesis is composed of extended guitar tones and jagged melodies, washes of viola, sustained notes from a fender rhodes piano, and touched in places by ghostly percussion. The title of the first track, "Twin Guitar Rhodes Viola Drone (for LaMonte Young)," spells out everything you need to know about its eight minute existence. The second track on Side A, "Obelisk (for Kurt Schwitters)," slides into being like a handful of gravel being grounded against a damaged microphone. The percussion is cacophonous and chaotic as if the kit is held together by only two screws and each hit against a cymbal or a drum head must be precariously carried out so as to not bring the whole kit down (and, of course, four minutes into the song just such a crashing cataclysm occurs). Meanwhile the meditative trance state of the infinite notes drone on. "Rhodes Viola Multiple" layers the two instruments into a fugue of hazy texture. The viola is dragged through a pit of mud and left lying on the floor where it can only groan and thrash about in a much lower range. "Schnee" pairs up searching guitar with its slashes of feedback-tinged melodies and an acoustic guitar, putting sparse elements in the background as the two instruments spin and waltz about one another.
These tracks don't fit the aesthetic of his upcoming studio album, Multiples, and instead of leaving them to gather dust in a fading library, Whitman has given Kranky the go-ahead to press 1,000 copies of Antithesis on vinyl (Kranky's first vinyl-only release), giving us the opportunity to lose our heads in the slow drone of Whitman's work. Antithesis isn't a revelatory document of an artist's evolution, but it is a solid record of an evolution of sound, and worth your time if you have a soft spot for the droning explorations of slow space.
Weltraumorgel - Communication
Weltraumorgel's Communication begins with a Speak 'n' Spell mission statement, a tiny transistorized voice which lays out the basic premise of their mission: maximize the flow of data from their creative center to the bits at the back of your knees in order to get your body moving. They seek "spontaneous dance movements" on the part of the receptive entities which participate in their experiment. Once an interface is created, "higher levels of communication" will become possible.
Weltraumorgel means "space organ." Get it? It's a pseudo-scientific experiment masquerading as a techno record. We are not the control group here. As we listen to Communication, our reactions and gyrates will be closely monitored. When you get down to the sci-fi disco lounge of "Moonshine Boogie," know that your kitschy "Robot with a Trunk O Junk" moves are being recorded and collected for scientific examination.
The two names on the scientific paper which will come out of this experiment will be Wollschläger, Olaf, DJ, and Gehle, Ralf, DJ. Both have studied at the intensive programs offered at the Aphex Twin Academy and The Institute of the 2 Lone Swordsmen where they received diplomas and the recommendation to go forth and study the effect of the beat on the brain and the butt.
Fax-heads -- devotees of Peter Namlook's FAX label -- would get a kick out of this record. Weltraumorgel comes at electronic music in a similiar fashion: craft beats with a definite techno bent, flood space music into the crevices, and make exploratory tracks like "Communication" which travel at the fringes of dance music like slightly intoxicated wallflowers hoping no one will see them dancing in the corner. The splendid "Elvis On The Phone" features a wild and lonesome guitar playing against a gentle beat structure which sounds like the hum and chime of finely tuned machinery cruising down the Autobahn well past midnight. There are echoes of Jeff Beck's guitar style against Roger Waters' opening track from Amused to Death as seen through the beat ambience of the Virtual Vice collaborations of Peter Namlook and Wolfram Spyra.
I don't really know who these guys are and the websites listed all over the liner notes don't really tell me much more. Is it a techno record or a science experiment? Is it a chill out ambient disc masquerading as a social experiment? Is it a coded transmission that is one half space music, one half a communication from a distant star, and one half an Nth-dimensional party record? Weltraumorgel's Communication is a strange little platter which is more than the clinical sum of its digital pits and peaks. This is one science experiment that is worth the five bucks and the electric shocks.
Wilt - As Giants Watch Over Us
With As Giants Watch Over Us, his follow up to his musique concrete opus Radio 1940, James Keeler continues to refine his singular style that blends dark ambient atmospheres with apocalyptic rhythmic noise and the lost radio signals of cinematic isolationism. A fervent sound designer, Keeler makes music that evokes time and space, transcending the utilitarian method of setting mood music to sampled doom sayers in order to communicate his bleak vision. Instead, Keeler utilizes an amalgamation of modern compositional methods to create soundscapes that slip directly into your brain and detonate their message cross your sensory arrays.
"The Coming Plague" opens with the distorted hum of large insects as a swarm of genetically altered locust land and begin devouring every green leaf within a ten mile radius. Looped voices and simple tone melodies rise up around the locust noises as if civilization has been hurriedly abandoned in the face of the approaching swarm, leaving behind the automated machinery that will eventually grind to a rusty halt. The sounds of "Engineering Eternity" are of unsupervised machinery. Electrical current flows without purpose, sparking erratically from the heads of poorly shielded cooper conduits. Automated fabricators attach parts to a cybernetic construct without consideration of their programming, and the resultant cyborg bleeds steam and coughs white noise.
The machinery spins backwards on "Reversing Magnetism." The track begins as an ambient piece as if the world has been spun down and, in those few moments before it is started again, everything settles and all that remains is the breath of motion. And then, slowly, rhythmically, the world is spun up again, though in a reversed order. The inverted loops bleed over into "Tangled in Briars" where Keeler paints a stark portrait of panic and uncertainty.
"Wires for Nerves" bristles with a thousand lit nerve endings, each one sending back a crackling stream of electricity. The resultant music is an ambient, groaning melody that is suffused with electric fire. Your own pulse fuels the recursive ebb and flow of the noises and, as your heart rate begins to accelerate, the field of sound becomes denser and layered with more static. "The Fiddler and the Fool" performs a slow dance on cracked concrete as several violinists get caught in a film loop, endless cycled until their fingers bleed. Repetition can be creepy when it is a melody that seems like it is a bit of happiness plastered over a facade in order to hide the screaming terror beneath, and Keeler's loop of fading violins teeters on the edge of melancholy and despair.
Lest I paint a completely bleak picture, let me point out that "The Mystery of Iniquity" concerns itself with light. While an old Victrola spins endlessly, churning static into your speakers, there is a faint ray of sunlight that is still caught in the worn coils of your receiver and it bleeds out into the room in a thin tone. Keeler is creating an atmosphere of Armageddon, but he stops short of complete annihilation. There is, the ray says, still hope as long as there is light and long as there is air and water. While "The Disappearance of Man" whispers and creaks and whistles as if the wind is playing old instruments left behind by civilization, eventually a tiny radio signal bleeds into the mix. Somewhere out there someone is still transmitting.
Purely instrumental music is easily labeled as a "soundtrack to an imaginary film," and while Keeler's work could very readily be attached to an apocalyptic cinematic vision of a desolate future, his careful sculpting of the aural environments creates a listening experience that is more than just a thematic soundtrack; As Giants Watch Over Us is a symphonic air raid siren, a collection of songs that concerns themselves with the end of the world. Listen or ignore at your own risk.
- W -
The alphabetical list below provides navigation into the review archive. To view a comprehensive list of all reviews available in the repository, click on the infinity symbol (∞) in the last box of the series.
Regarding materials for review, I can be reached at:
Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina