Newly reissued with different artwork, Porter Ricks' second album is a fitfully compelling and somewhat perplexing mixed bag that I somehow managed to never hear until now. My befuddlement is largely due to the fact that the first Porter Ricks album (Biokinetics) is an all-time dub techno classic, so I would have expected Andy Mellwig and Thomas K√∂ner to expand further upon the formula that they had perfected to great acclaim. Instead, the duo took a more stylistically fluid approach, occasionally returning to Biokinetics-style dub, but also dabbling in dark ambient and some unexpectedly funky strains of house music. That said, it is probably wrong to view Biokinetics and this album as intentional statements or clearly delineated phases of a linear artistic evolution, as both releases are compilations of singles and EPs and Biokinetics got all the great Chain Reaction ones from 1996. This one collects all the Force Inc. EPs from the following year, so these pieces could be anything from Chain Reaction-era outtakes to stylistic experiments to a stab at greater accessibility (though that is hard to imagine, given the cold bleakness of K√∂ner's solo work). In any case, there are still enough strong pieces to make this an enjoyable album, but anyone hoping for the focus and distinctive vision of Biokinetics will probably want to moderate their expectations a bit before diving into this one.
This uneven and eclectic collection of songs makes a lot more sense if one considers how they were originally released, as the album is essentially four stand-alone singles and their flipsides. And in classic dub fashion, the B-sides tend to be variations of the raw material from the A-side, so there are basically four separate thematically unified clusters of songs here. There is one notable exception, however, and it is the album's longest and strongest piece: "Scuba Lounge." I do not believe it ever surfaced on a single before appearing on this full length (the Trident EP featured a different "Scuba" piece), but it definitely sounds like it should have been on Biokinetics. It opens in deceptively formless fashion, elegantly blurring together burbling scuba sounds and ominous industrial ambiance, but soon coheres into a killer menacing groove of gurgling bass and seething, slow-motion crunch. The other pieces closest to the Biokinetics vein are "Redundance" series from the Vol 1 and Vol 2 EPs. My favorite of the lot is "Redundance 3," which combines the relentless forward motion of its shuffling beat with an impressively gelatinous and gnarled sounding synth motif. The remaining four "Redundance" pieces are a surprisingly varied lot, taking roughly the same themes in very different directions, as K√∂ner and Mellwig alternately veer into hissing, coldly futuristic ambient ("Redundance (Version)"), a sensually kitschy vintage burlesque show groove ("Redundance 5"), and‚Äîweirdest of all‚Äîa Bo Diddly beat ("Redundance 6"). Similarly wrongfooting are the pieces from Explore/Exposed and Spoil/Spoiled. For example, "Explore" sounds like a New Jack Swing groove augmented with a very insistent wah-wah guitar theme, which the flip resembles guitars from The Church mashed together with a hypercaffeinated, percussion-heavy, and out-of-control strain of synth pop. That said, "Spoil" is inarguably the biggest shock of the album, as an unrelenting house thump barrels along with a very in-your-face funk bass line and some jangly guitars. It sounds far more like a purposely ham-fisted house remix of an A Certain Ratio single than anything I would expect from Porter Ricks. The smeared, hallucinatory, and submerged-sounding flipside ("Spoiled") is right up my alley though, approximating a building-shaking rave as heard from a neighboring alley. While I wish I loved more than a handful of songs here, I am delighted that this reissue called my attention to a few old classics that were new to me, as Porter Ricks has a tragically lean discography for an influential project that has now spanned a quarter century.
Samples can be found here.
In my review of Cantus Figures Laurus last month, I half-jokingly noted that Sarah Davachi's creative arc seems unavoidably headed towards composing a full-on Mellotron-driven prog rock opus. While she has not quite reached that dubious culminating achievement yet, Antiphonals is arguably another significant step in that direction, as it is very Mellotron-centric and the vinyl release features a sticker comparing it to a prog album with everything removed except the keyboard parts. For the most part, however, the change in instrumentation did not inspire any particularly dramatic stylistic transformations, as Antiphonals mostly picks up right where Cantus, Descant left off, which is somewhere best described as "like a blurred, stretched, and deconstructed organ mass." In keeping with that theme, both an electric organ and a pipe organ are featured (along with plenty of other instruments), yet the resemblance to an organ mass is more spiritual than overt this time around. In more concrete terms, that means that Davachi's sound palette has broadened a bit from Cantus, but she is still very much focused on somberly meditative moods, glacial melodies, bleary drones, and subtle harmonic transformations.
As was previously the case with Cantus, Descant, Antiphonals' title plainly states the compositional theme of the album. The term is usually applied to liturgical or traditional choral music and roughly means that two choirs are singing different themes that interact with each other. While there are not any choirs here, the album‚Äôs overarching aesthetic seems to be sketchlike compositions in which Davachi brings together two simple motifs to rub up against one another in interesting ways. I say "sketchlike" because she does not seem particularly interested in crafting strong melodies or complete compositional arcs for most of these pieces, opting to instead zoom in closely on harmonies and textures that tend to come to an abrupt end when a piece has run its course. That said, the album does feature one (somewhat) fully formed and melodic centerpiece ("Gradual of Image") that combines minor key acoustic arpeggios, a quietly gorgeous organ melody, and fluttering, dreamy layers of Mellotron. That is Davachi's most "prog" moment and it executed beautifully. For me, however, the album‚Äôs zenith is the ghostly drone of "Magdalena," which sounds like a spectral brass ensemble conjuring slow motion waves of aching melancholy. It is a masterful slow burn, gradually revealing shifting patterns and warm harmonies. In fact, it may be one of the most perfect pieces that Davachi has composed to date, so the album's primary allure is "one killer drone piece and a very promising prog detour," but a couple of the remaining pieces are compelling as well. For example, "Border of Mind" initially sounds like a murky tape of a small string ensemble trying their damnedest to acoustically replicate Sunn O)))'s gnarled and blown-out drones, but it quickly dissolves into a hallucinatory coda of smeared flutes and uneasily dissonant harmonies. Elsewhere, "Rushes Recede" takes the opposite route, as bleary flute-like Mellotron drones gradually blossom into something resembling a sublime organ mass. For me, "Rushes Recede" feels like the third and final highlight of the album, yet fans who are more enamored with Davachi's recent indulgently minimal "ancient cathedral" direction will likely find Antiphonals to be a worthy successor to Cantus, Descant. While this is admittedly not my favorite side of her work, I can still very much appreciate the way she is slowing down and burrowing deeper, as though she is tenaciously peeling away layer after layer of craft to get to the pure essence of her vision.
Samples can be found here.
One of the many surprises of the last few years has been the current pipe organ renaissance unfolding in the experimental music world (your days are numbered, modular synths!). Thankfully, we still seem to be in the honeymoon phase of that phenomenon, as the vanguard of Kali Malone, Sarah Davachi, and Lawrence English are all fairly consistent in exclusively releasing strong and/or interesting albums. This latest release is English's second (after last year's Lassitude) to focus entirely upon pieces composed on an 19th century organ housed in Brisbane's The Old Museum. This is a very different album than its predecessor, however, as Lassitude was comprised of homages to √âliane Radigue and Phill Niblock. On Observation of Breath, English instead derives conceptual inspiration from Charlemagne Palestine's "maximal minimalism" as well as the mechanics of breathing (quite relevant when pipe organs are involved). There is one more favorable similarity to Lassitude, however, as this album also features one stone-cold masterpiece that spans an entire side of vinyl.
As English amusingly notes in his album description, Observation of Breath was composed and recording during a soft lockdown in which he "spent many days playing to an empty concert hall." He also states that he considers these four pieces a collaboration between himself and the pipe organ, which is not intended a mere nicety, as he viewed their interaction similarly to the mind/body dialogue of breathing (hence the album's title). In essence, English was consciously "breathing" for the pipe organ, as he strove to achieve a compelling balance of power (exhalations stacked in unison) and "elegant uncertainty" (the moments when breath becomes unsteady and fading). Knowing all of that failed to fully prepare me for the harrowing "The Torso" though, as English unleashes deep bass drones augmented with plenty of hiss, industrial ambiance, and nightmarish whine (I especially enjoyed the parts that sounded like a seasick air raid siren). The following "A Binding" is considerably less radical, lying somewhere between "textbook drone done well" and "multiple drones with differing oscillation patterns ingeniously intertwined." To my ears, it is the least strong piece on the album, but I still like it. And I love ‚ÄúAnd A Twist,‚Äù as it feels like a hallucinatory organ mass that keeps tying itself into murky knots of dissonance. Sadly, it clocks in under three minutes, but is easy to imagine an extended version rivaling Catherine Christer Hennix‚Äôs The Electric Harpsichord for the crown of "best album that sounds like a vampire on hallucinogens blasting out a sinister solo in his lonely mountaintop castle."
Fortunately, the closing title piece makes a great consolation prize for that missed opportunity. "Observation Of Breath" initially sounds like a viscous fog of dread oozing across a deep sustained drone, but English gradually enhances that with more harmonic color as the piece glacially unfolds. The truly inspired part comes when English begins to "explore the sonic qualities of different frequency spectra," however, as the piece blossoms into an all-enveloping and seismic drone juggernaut that feels like it is tuned to the resonant frequency of the earth (or at least of my apartment walls). As such, the primary appeal of this release for me is that it contains one of the greatest drone pieces ever recorded, but it is a damn strong album as a whole too. English is in peak form here.
Samples may be found here.