CD Reviews

Saturday 26th November

November 27, 2011

After a long tiring day at work, it helps to come home to a new Haptic album. it helps a lot. This is a great record. Haptic are the Chicago based trio of Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills and Adam Sonderberg. This album, named Scilens (apparently a character from Shakespeare’s Henry IV but also an anagram of silence) and another release on the Entr’acte label is their tenth release now. The Cd release is on Entr’acte, but a cassette version appears on the FlingCo Sound label. The last few discs I have heard have been great- very beautiful swooping masses of gloriously rich tone and texture, electronic and acoustic sounds all blended together with great precision and attention to detail. This new album fits into the same bracket, but it manages to hit the spot with even greater force.

While there is no indication here as to who plays what, the foil cover to Scilens includes an almost ridiculous list of fifty-four items used to make the music here, ranging from the likely cymbals, drums and oscillator to the less obvious marbles, sewing machine and a hearing aid. In places throughout the six tracks here the instrumentation use can be daily identified, but often what we hear is a mass of sound, often gathering into a crescendo, the content of which is unclear but invariably beautiful. From the outset of the first piece, named The Ister, the scene is set. We hear soft mulling groans in the distance, topped by sandy hisses of dry texture for a few minutes, bleak in tone, brooding in atmosphere, until a rattling, rapidly rolling drum sound appears, joined fast by a shimmering cymbal, and the two quickly rise to high volume, merging into one glowing mass of percussion that punches out of the speakers before collapsing into a lull that is then abruptly brought to an end when cut dead. Then we hear a strange set of ticking sounds that actually had me leaping out of my chair concerned that the disc had jammed, only to suddenly resolve itself into a chiming piano sequence and then some murky, unidentifiable scuffling field recordings, spooky wails and what sounds like groaning floorboards, but as they don’t appear on the list I’ll assume they are something else. This is the way the album goes. I suspect if we were to get a precise breakdown of each sound used here and how they are all combined the  complexity would be remarkable. What is so impressive though is how it all hangs together as one.

Listening to Scilens on and off for a week or so, the name that jumps out at me as an obvious comparison is Michael Pisaro, who does indeed get a “research and development” credit on the sleeve, alongside a number of others. The form and structure of the pieces may not resemble Pisaro’s compositions so much, as they are obviously shorter and change more frequently, but the general feel of the work, the massed elements, the tendency towards greying semi-drones and the precision layering of small details into a larger work remind me a lot of Pisaro’s more recent “symphonic” works. There is also a filmic quality to it all, a sense of the visual, though nothing clear- perhaps a series of shadows, of light shining through gaps in half-open doors, close up details of microscopic events, dramatic film of supernovas caught through telescopes.

Please excuse the hyperbolic extravagances, but this CD is great. it isn’t all predictable though. The fifth piece here, named after the label Entr’acte dispenses with anything drone-like and instead begins as a collection of metallic, tumbling clatter that could be a close-miked recording of a chain being slowly ratted around, but is just as likely to be something completely different. This is then replaced by a distant rolling drum and then little sparks of radio, tiny grabs of something, perhaps spoken voices, and then a series of different passages that seem disconnected from one another until the music settles into a more familiar, grainy, cloudy pattern. The sixth track, a “hidden” [iece not mentioned on the sleeve and so untitled opens with several minutes of silence before the very faintest of the very gentlest little sways of sound appears, not unlike the almost inaudible sound of wind buffeting the house while you lay in silence at night. Gradually, very gradually this builds, over a period of twenty minutes or so, never becoming loud, never doing anything dramatic, just existing and shifting slightly as little shimmering tones come and go. The album keeps you on your toes by changing frequently, only really settling into one long pattern in this final meditation of a closing track. It works so well for me because of the combination of acute craftsmanship and listenership, as the pieces are built and arranged in such delicately precise fashion, but also because it is all so damned beautiful- not only in a traditional “pretty” sense but also through the richness of the constructions, the architecture of it all.

Haptic are a great group, and Scilens, recorded a little over a year ago is their finest work yet. Right up there amongst the very best things I have heard this year this is a CD not to be missed. So don’t.

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