This is my first encounter with the unique fare of Berlin's One Instrument Records, but I have probably stumbled upon Felicity Mangan's work before, as she released an EP of animal-sourced sound art on Longform Editions back in 2019 and she is also half of the duo Native Instrument.¬† While it may sound like a stretch to call the multi-directional "quasi-bioacoustic sound piece" of her Longform EP Stereo'frog'ic "normal," it is nevertheless fair to say that frogs and homemade speakers are considerably closer to Mangan's comfort zone than a harmonica album (which is good, as I generally loathe harmonicas). And yet here we are: Bell Metal Reeds is an entirely harmonica-sourced album (Mangan picked one up at a flea market in Hamburg right before the pandemic). In most cases, learning that someone recorded a solo harmonica album over lockdown would‚Äîat best‚Äîelicit a wince, heavy sigh, or torrent of expletives from me, yet Mangan has somehow managed to wield the instrument so unconventionally and so beautifully that my mind has been properly blown. This is an incredible album, at times recalling everything from classic Kranky fare a la Windy & Carl to Neu! to Chris Watson.
Happily, there is very little on this album that is recognizably sourced from a flea market harmonica, which is a good thing in my book. The even better thing is how transcendently Mangan was able to repurpose her Hohner Echo Harp's sounds and the impressive variety of compositions that resulted. The opening "Echo Harp 1" kicks off the album in especially sublime fashion, as the first half unfolds as sensuous, wobbly drone swells enhanced with flutters of dreampop shimmer that lazily swoop around the drones like an iridescent bat. It almost sounds like Mangan deconstructed drone music and somehow wound up with something languorously sensual instead. Curiously, Mangan opted to shift gears midway through the piece, so the final minutes are more akin to texturally confused drone metal than sexy harmonica ambient. I am bit disappointed by that transformation, as the first half was brilliant, but there is an eerie bent note in the final section that I like, so all is forgiven. "Echo Harp 2" is another big surprise, as it initially resembles an ancient war procession shrouded in a flickering psychedelic haze. Gradually, however, a throbbing drone slowly rolls out of the enchanted fog to launch a final act that resembles a stretched, smeared, and deconstructed motorik rhythm enhanced by the eerie whistle of a passing ghost train. While the first two pieces start off as near-masterpieces and end as merely very good, "Echo Harp 3" manages to sustain its perfection all the way to the finish line, resembling a wonderfully sensuous and spacey instrumental in the Windy & Carl vein (albeit a bit synthier-sounding than that comparison suggests). The album winds to a close with yet another surprise stylistic detour, as "Echo Harp 4" begins life as a pulsing mass of psych drone, but evolves into a compellingly polyrhythmic twist on a jangly drone rock band with an unusual effects palette. That adds up to four surprising, inventive, and beautifully crafted songs in a row, so I guess I am now a raging Felicity Mangan fan. If she can work this kind of magic with the insane constraint of exclusively using a flea market harmonica, her potential must be damn near limitless.
Samples can be found here.