CD Reviews

Saturday 15th October

October 15, 2011

I was just thinking the other day that the art of constructing a CDs of purely ‘abstract’ sounds, not field recordings, or obviously instrumental samples is a bit of a dying art. I of course am not talking about improvisation here, but the taking of more unidentifiable material and, using a computer, sculpting it into a coherent work. These days when I listen to something of this kind I usually seem to hear something identifiable in there somewhere, be it the ubiquitous hydrophone recording, or traffic, or birdsong, or maybe something more unusual that isn’t on the usual checklist but can be identified. The likes of John Wall, meshing together raw, nameless material into something less amorphous are probably still all out there, but it does seem their paths cross less frequently with mine than they used to.

So it has been really pleasing to listen to Joe Panzner’s Clearing, Polluted disc over the past couple of weeks. Pieced together on a computer over three years from (I am guessing) bits and pieces of improvised electroacoustic matter into something of a three-part epic composition, there is something refreshingly simple, yet darkly emotive about this new release. Panzner first came to my attention as one half of the Scenic Railroads duo a good few years ago now. Releasing a handful of strong CDs that crossed between modern electroacoustic improv and the noise end of the spectrum, the American duo stopped working so regularly together when geographic and familial matters took precedence. Assuming is a dangerous thing to do, but I will guess that as he became a father for the first time, Panzner retreated to working slowly on less immediate, more considered music when time allowed. In this case in particular, I would say that this was a good move, necessary or not, as Clearing, Polluted sounds like a thoroughly considered, fully realised work by a much matured musician.

This said, the album does not sound like a studio construction. The danger of working in this manner will always be that the immediacy and ineffable energy of improvised music will be lost to the slippery slope of precision and dilemma. Nothing like that has taken place here, and the three tracks each seethe with a raw vitality, be it the quiet, restrained fidgeting and tremor of the first and last pieces, or the blistering mass of confused noise that forms much of the centrepiece. Panzner manages to get a fair amount of passion and power into the work. This doesn’t sound like a series of layered improvisations or a cut and paste collage, but a thoroughly organic, living entity. To create something that sounds so alive and vibrant over such a long duration of time is quite an achievement.

The opening Young Theorist shudders into life like an old engine begin started for the first time in years, brittle bits of rough electronics spark intermittently into life before settling into a faintly digital shimmer for a while before the first of several eruptions of electronic magma fuse the process and force the music to start again. Throughout the album there is a beautiful balance between the bassy hums, drifting swathes and clicking chatter that sit in the background and the more violent activities that come and go above them. The very slowly intensifying layers that form the base of the music gradually seem to increase the heat before the sudden inflammations rip the music open. If becoming a parent is supposed to mellow a musician then Panzner seems immune to such remodelling. While Clearing, Polluted feels a thoroughly evolved, mature work, it also bares a lot of anger and emotion.  The frustrations of youth haven’t gone away, they have just been neatly arranged.

As Young Theorist resolves itself to a soothing, almost ambient wash for its closing minutes, the following Hindsight is 50/50 stumbles  its way through a darkened room full of shards of broken circuits until the light is suddenly switched on and we are assaulted by a stream of occasionally thunderous, digitally twisted noise that leaps around rapidly from one set of dynamics to another, sounds carefully selected, precisely placed maybe, and yet giving the impression of catastrophic collapse, elements crashing around our ears however we turn our heads. As a listener I find myself thrown headfirst into this music, lost in its intense mazes, a stream of metaphors and poetic extremes falling into my head to describe its claustrophobic enclosures and the hive of activity flying about inside before the track flatlines into a grey, industrially textured impasse that eventually gives way to the softest of quiet recoveries. The closing Less Than a Feeling continues at low volume, and much to its credit, refuses to go the same way as the preceding piece. Instead the track folds together incredibly delicate, barely audible tones, shimmering pinpricks of digital detritus, looming clouds and smaller, seemingly stray particles into a work that feels pregnant with anticipation, and keeps you wondering where it will go until you realise it has already taken you to some quite lovely places. Brian used the word grace to describe the impact of this closing track, and I struggle to come up with anything better- after the histrionics of the album’s central track the closing piece has a dignity about it, a calm repose littered with fascinating small happenings that almost makes its own statement about the rest of the album. There is one sudden little digital abrasion in this final piece, and its intrusion signals the end of the album, a brief raw malfunctioning in the calm that brings everything to a sudden, somehow fitting halt.

I don’t usually get on well with really noisy music, but I have always made it clear that what I don’t like is the sense of reckless abandon that is a feature of so much of the genre, the feeling that the details no longer matter. Clearing, Polluted, despite its forays into quite harsh, loud sections never feels like it loses control and always feels considered and purposefully arranged. When extremes of volume are used in this way they are highly affecting and bring immediate comparisons to human emotions, anger, tension and fear. Listening to this album is as troublingly difficult as it is joyfully pleasurable. I hope it takes Joe Panzner another three years to make his next album.

Available from the increasingly strong Copy for your Records.

Comments (2)

  • jpanzner

    October 17, 2011 at 11:53 am

    hi richard!

    thanks for such a thoughtful review — i appreciate it!

    i just wanted to let you know that scenic railroads (mike shiflet/joe panzner) is alive and well… and we’ve had a busy year! we’ve had a monthly mp3 series called ‘more titles than tracks,’ and you can find it over at — our most recent track features chandan narayan, jesse kudler, and new friend chuck sipperley.

    lots of archive material, lots of new stuff, some interesting odds and ends. probably worth a look…

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 17, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks Joe. I was vaguely aware of this, but thought it was just you clearing out the archives. I will take a look and listen when I can.

Leave a Reply