CD Reviews

Marc Baron – Hidden Tapes

May 8, 2014

CD
Potlatch

One of those releases that comes along every so often, but not that often, and knocks you sideways. Marc Baron doesn’t release all that much music. When he does, it is in my opinion usually excellent (his last album was released on my own label) but even then I wasn’t expecting to take quite what I took from Hidden Tapes. Baron’s music is often unusual, mysterious and exciting. With this new release for the increasingly fine Potlatch label however it also feels highly personal and even emotional.

Previously a saxophonist, Baron has ceased to play that instrument for a few years now, and this new disc seems to consist of electroacoustic constructions made primarily from old tapes, presumably from Baron’s private collection. Notes at the Potlatch website tell us that grabs from movies and classical or liturgical music are also churned into the mix. There are five tracks, mostly titled with dates, perhaps linking back to when the tapes used here were first recorded, but as with much of this album, and Baron’s work in general, so much is left for us to guess at. The five pieces essentially exist as streams of thick, heavy abstraction- spluttering, noisy outbursts, blurry, almost mechanical smears and all kinds of electronic, or electroacoustic distraction, often at relatively high volume. These however fracture often, sometimes slipping into silence, but also often letting what we must assume to be the original content of the tapes to peer through the clouds of noise. So we hear bits of conversation, music, chatter, and a load more besides suddenly surfacing, and often disappearing even more abruptly.

The five tracks are not just the result of old tapes being played back to see what would happen though. Baron has clearly put a lot of time and thought into the arrangement of these materials. There is, in typically idiosyncratic fashion, a lot of use made of surprise. A blast of noise may suddenly be replaced by a creepily slowed down voice, a patch of strange old music might slide into a passage of eerily atmospheric crashing about in a resonant building, but that again could suddenly drop off a chasm into silence. The whole thing is stunningly crafted to continually hit you squarely round the head, but even then Hidden Tapes feels like it is about so much more than impactful a arrangements of interesting sounds. There is a strange, really difficult to describe sensation of unsettling sadness about it all. The titles suggest times in Baron’s life- 1991-2005 or 2010-2012, or 2013- A happy summer with children. These suggestive titles, coupled with the way the tape remnants keep pulling themselves into the foreground give the album an oddly nostalgic feel, a sensation of reflection, but a secretly, masked reflection that means something to the composer but remains out of reach to the listener. 2013- A happy summer with children feels anything but happy as it begins. Looming organ-like sounds flood through echoing scuffles through empty rooms, footsteps climb stairs and an overwhelming sense of mournful oppression is present until cut dead by the sound of a cassette tape being turned over and everything ignites again into a flickering mass of childish voices, white noise and what might be a piano. The closing 1965-2013, an intriguing title given Baron was born in 1981 opens with a burst of badly strummed guitar rock in front of a whooping crowd before it too is subsumed under tumultuous bass tones.

There may be no hidden meanings or personal structures behind Hidden Tapes. We are left of course to ponder for ourselves, find our own response to how it all feels, but for me this album, as well as being a superbly arranged work of exciting electroacoustic composition has a feeling of continual tension to it. Listening is at once an oddly moving experience and a fresh, vivid slap around the face. The natural response is to try and listen carefully, take in each moment, but the restlessness of it all makes this difficult. Rarely do we hear music that is at once both aesthetically and emotionally original and challenging. Hidden Tapes sounds great, but as it throttles your senses it also presents you with a puzzle to try and fathom out.  It is for me a mysterious, enlivening masterpiece. One of the best things I have heard in quite a long time and completely essential.

Caveats apply

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