CD Reviews

Tuesday 13th October

October 14, 2009

islandAnother hard day, another late night. I’m really looking forward to getting a few days off and getting away for a couple of days next week. I did listen to some music enough to write about it tonight anyway, though that said, I’m not really sure what to write…

Lots of parcel arrive here during the average week, with postmarks on them from all around the world. Sometimes I know what will be in them, sometimes I don’t. When Mattin sends me CDs I rarely know they are on the way, and its never easy to guess which country he will send them from. Two arrived here yesterday as part of Mattin’s Free Software Series of releases, small-run CDr editions that are also available as free downloads from the FSS site. This time they came from Sweden..!

I listened to the first of the two CDs today, a piece that I had not not downloaded from the site and listened to before, possibly because I knew nothing about the musician(s) involved, and there is only so much listening time available to me these days. Once the disc arrived though of course I gave it a listen. It seems to be called is-land and is credited to xxxxx. reading the information at the FSS site, a Berlin based musician / computer wizard named Martin Howse is one name involved, but whether this is a solo or collaborative project I have no idea. I quite like not knowing though, and it is good to listen to things from time to time with no expectations and no pre-conceptions.

The disc came with a fold out booklet, which is somewhat confusing to begin with. Half of the booklet includes a series of really rather beautiful black and white images of suburban London, but also contains a text, set in an old blackface type, the kind used on the sleeve of most heavy metal albums, that makes little sense to me, but discusses the meaning of the word island and its somewhat tenuous links to magic (whatever that is actually supposed to be) To be honest, having read the text through three times I don’t understand very much of it at all, and the bits I can figure out strike me as a load of old nonsense. So I put the booklet down and tried just listening to the CD. (The booklet can be downloaded here.)

There seem to be nine tracks here, the first of which is just two and a half minutes long and consists of strange,possibly entirely digital scraping, squeaky noises, backed up by little bursts of microphone gain and/or speaker hum. The sensation is not unlike the soundtrack that might be used behind a documentary of a day in the life of a wood louse, scurrying about, burrowing through things, squelching as it goes. This then immediately shifts into the second track of the album, which consists of twenty-one minutes of hiss and static, the kind of sound you used to get if you left the TV on too late and programming came to an end. Every so often as this hiss quietly streams by another burst of static will appear, run alongside for a few minutes and then cut out again. This continues in a weirdly quite satisfying way for the length of the track. Although on the first listen I was very much on edge waiting for something to suddenly happen it didn’t, and the shifting layers of static were actually quite pleasing to the ear.

The third track, some fifteen minutes in length is all about the static again, but this time much louder, harsher and as you lose yourself in the rush of tiny pellets of sound you hear all kinds of other effects and other screeches and wails in there. This is never just “noise” music though in any genre specific sense of the word. Although the static does blast out a bit it actually isn’t that loud, and most of its forceful power comes from the sound itself rather than the volume. The fourth track is much quieter, and one third of the length, made out of soft swells of what I think is some kind of speaker hum, or some kind of electro-magnetic interference of some kind. The sound generally just rolls softly past, but with tiny little moments within where the sound cracks and falters for split seconds. So far then, is-land is rather nice to listen to, if somehow confusing to fathom out where any context or meaning is concerned.

The fifth track then (none of the tracks are titled) is really rather good, a mix of very high pitch whistles and little fizzy bursts of electronic sound that flit past quietly, picking up volume into a burst of white noise just for spilt seconds before the track cuts dead and is replaced by two minutes of what sounds like processed voices talking, but might not be. The sound is not unlike what you hear when you are talking to someone on a bad mobile phone line, bits of voice broken up into bits and distorted heavily so not one single word, or even the sex of the person talking can be identified. Then we get four more minutes of heavy, draining white noise undercut by a queasy sounding squeal not unlike the sound that early home computers used to make as their software was uploaded via cassette tapes.

Track eight lasts some ten minutes ad is one of the oddest pieces of music I’ve heard for some time. All throughout we hear little bursts of dirty electronic chatter, a bit like you might hear if someone was to play about with a plug leading into a mixer as you recorded something through it. These little bursts last about four seconds each, and are separated by four second silences. So we get scratchy scuffing sounds, silence, sounds, silence, all the way through. As the track progresses the little bursts of sound seem to get slightly louder, but this may not be the case and the repetitive nature of the music might just lead the listener to try and find this kind of progression in there when its no there to be found. The five minute long ninth track then seems to return to the same area of material to the opening piece of the album, unidentifiable scrunches and alien sounds, sometimes sounding like one of those occasions when someone has phoned you by accident and you get to hear the rustling sound of the bottom of their pocket for a while. The last few of minutes of this final track then descends into a particularly crunchy period of crackling static before coming to an ending.

Sorry for the lengthy descriptions above, but music such as this has very little reference points and is extremely oblique, so some kind of description is required. It is actually all pretty good, but really I have no idea what I have been listening to or how it was made. The only music I have heard even vaguely close to this in recent years is Goh Lee Kwang’s, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been told he was involved, but I don’t think he is. There is actually a careful sense of composition in this music, even when the raw material used seem somewhat wild and uncontrollable. The fifth track in particular was very well put together, completley abstract and yet in some way way very musical at the same time. Overall is-land is not an easy listen. It is challenging to listen to intently, as you are always on edge wondering what will come next. It does not surprise me at all to find this release on one of Mattin’s labels. It certainly isn’t boring music or anything that can be easily classified into any genre. I am not sure how it is made. Certainly free software has been used, otherwise it wouldn’t be on this label,  but for a large part the music doesn’t sound like it has been made on a computer.  I have no idea how much of it was improvised, or how much of it was even intentional, as in places the sounds seem to have a life of their own, just captured on disc.

So I don’t really know who xxxxx is/are, I can’t really categorise their music and can only really describe it and I’m not really sure how it has made me feel. The lengthy booklet only helped in confusing things further. Some of the music was great, other bits less so. As a CD of really intriguing, genuinely experimental music though is-land is great. Well worth downloading and listening to carefully.

Comment (1)

  • Brian Olewnick

    October 14, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Huh. This also arrived at chez Olewnick yesterday (along with Unami’s release on the same label) but I didn’t have a chance to listen. Always wonder, especially in cases like this, how having read a description like your above will alter my perception of the piece. Too late now!

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