CD Reviews

Friday 13th November

November 13, 2009

sns06_250Blimey I worked hard today. Physical work this time, my body aches, but I am consoling myself with the fact that I have to work tomorrow but then have two weeks off with little more than listening to music and writing about it planned. I’m going to be counting the hours…

Today I have been listening to a quite extraordinary CD. Extraordinary in that it sounds really good and within this narrow area of music that I write about actually quite original. It is called Flock and Tumble, is by the American musician and sound arranger Seth Nehil, and is released on the Sonoris label. I have been listening on and off to this one for a few days now, and also played it on my journey to work, an exercise that once again lead me to wonder which sounds were coming from my immediate surroundings, and which were part of the recorded music. Tonight though I have played it twice (third time through as I type) quite loud on the stereo without headphones.

So what makes it extraordinary? Well its hard to explain. On paper Flock and Tumble is made up of seven short(ish) tracks that involve field recordings, treated instrumental and incidental sounds, bits of human voices and other assorted sonic detritus sculpted together, presumably with music arrangement software. Nothing particularly unusual about that I hear you say, and well, to be honest no there is nothing unusual about the sounds used or how the album has been compiled, but somehow, for some reason Flock and Tumble has a certain character about it that is quite unusual.

I have long admired Nehil’s work. Ura, a really early little 3″ disc he released was a big favourite of mine (and only mine it seems, I never saw it mentioned anywhere else). His albums with Olivia Block and JGrzinich are both also pretty good, but Flock and Tumble feels like a step onwards, Nehil’s boldest statement yet. The album is put together using fragments of field recordings, rain, insects buzzing near a microphone, resonant rooms etc… with portions of treated instrumental sounds (piano, percussion, probably much more less easily identified) and little bits of human voices shouting or chanting. What sets it apart is a wonderful sense of confidence in the material, an ability to go somewhere quite new without worrying about how trendy or tasteful the different elements might end up sounding. The voices appear from nowhere, brief snippets of shouted non-words, sometimes several voices collected together, sometimes just the one. They are not overused, they appear infrequently, and so always take the music to a different, slightly jarring perspective. The rest of the sounds are collected together in a jagged, energetic manner. Things do kind of tumble out of the speakers, all kinds of sounds at once, bouncing off of each other and falling about the floor. There are no gentle drones, tasteful uses of white noise or gradual fades. Sounds just drop into the music, crash about next to others that feel completely unrelated and yet very much at home and then flow onwards to the conclusion of the track.

All of the pieces are strong, but The Sun, a track that amongst other things seems to match violently plucked metal twine against a sole, distantly hammered drum and what sounds like a fly attacking a microphone is particularly exciting and unusual. Somehow these sounds, which are joined by clattering drums, a murky outdoors field recording and strange, somewhat scary voices chanting something not quite intelligible. There is a weird horror movie feel to it all. If this track was played behind a film of zombies walking towards a camera across a misty field it would work superbly. That comment probably makes the music sound cheesy or shallow however, and it really isn’t. This track in particular really did leave my hairs standing up on my neck on the first listen.

This is such a hard CD to describe in words like this. There is a hint of Jeph Jerman in there, natural sounds turned into rhythmic sections, and field recordings used in a bold manner so as to project something more than captures of a moment. The seven tracks all feel like thoroughly planned and realised structures, pieces put together with an end product already in mind rather than chance happenings when random sounds are placed together. Often the sounds are far from random anyway. The treated piano that forms the centrepiece of  Tew, the first piece on the album, or the manic percussion of the closing Blackhole both portray a striking sense of musicianship. Flock and Tumble is just a really exciting album, very fresh in its use of sounds, creating a natural tension from parts that don’t really belong together, and energy from the way it all flows, complete with sudden twists and moments of actually quite sparklingly excellent composition.

This review probably doesn’t tell you enough about why I like the CD, and my descriptions probably do not set it apart much from many other albums, but certainly this is a really very good piece of work indeed. One that fans of field recordings will enjoy, but moreover this is one for those that seek really vibrant modern composition. I really liked this one, in case you can’t tell. Available here.

Comments (2)

  • sethnehil

    November 15, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Hi Richard,
    thanks so much for the review. It’s an honor to get such a careful and generous listen. One small correction – the 3″ CD is called Uva (from 20City). And also one thought about having a predetermined end product – my pieces tend to arise out of layers of chaotic and uncoordinated recordings (which themselves arise out of an intention towards certain timbral characters). Lots of play within and responding to those unpredictable coincidences leads to the eventual form, without any wholly predetermined goal. That back and forth of intention and chaos is what attracts me to working with sound!
    Thanks again for the post, I appreciate the thoughts.

  • Richard Pinnell

    November 15, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Hi Seth, thanks for that.

    “the back and forth of intention and chaos” is a great way of describing what I enjoy in music in general. That would make a good album title…

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