Sound changes the weather. The climate, I mean. There are stormy sounds, the same way as there are sunny, anticyclonic, hurricane, or rainy sounds. It’s not entirely a physical phenomenon— although we’d have to see how sound, as air pressure, might influence an atmospheric situation—but rather a perceptive construct rooted in the cultural: the connotations that we assign to certain timbres with respect to their dramatic use in music or their reference to natural surroundings.
This long-winded speech is because this summer I’ve saved a lot of money on air-conditioning. Even though, from what people were saying, the rigours of summer were wreaking havoc outside my door. But I was fine. I even had to put on a light sweater when evening came. All thanks to “Nunatak – Teimo – Permafrost”, a spectacular re-edition of Thomas Köner’s first three albums for Type.
Put out between 1990 and 1993 by the former Dutch label Barooni, “Nunatak” (originally “Nunatak Gongamur”), “Teimo,” and “Permafrost” were conceived of, Köner explains today, as a trio, an aesthetic manifesto that he himself would gradually distance himself from—although not that much either, Porter Ricks aside– after “Aubrite” (1995), his last work for Barooni and the threshold of his best-known production. During the next ten years, he was sponsored by Mille Plateaux, (who inexplicably put out “Teimo” and “Permafrost” again in a single volume, extrapolating a duo from what was intended as a trio), as well as by Die Stadt. Returning to the subject of meteorology, “Nunatak”, “Teimo” and “Permafrost”, conveniently wrapped in a deluxe set–although they can also be bought separately and on vinyl—manage to make the temperature drop to polar extremes in any room. Literally, “Nunatak”, the title of which, according to Wikipedia, is the Eskimo word that defines the mountain peaks that emerge from glaciers without being covered by ice themselves, derives its conceptual nourishment from the tragic second expedition made by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) to the South Pole, known as the Terra Nova Expedition. At the head of a group of four other men, Scott sought to be the first to reach the geographical South Pole. When he reached his destination after two years of trials and tribulations, he discovered that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had gotten there only thirty-three days before him. On the return trip, all of the members of the team died of starvation, exhaustion, and cold.
Using only gongs and microphones, operating always within the range of low frequencies that would end up being one of his signs of identity, in his first published work, Köner avoids the temptation of creating a soundtrack for the sad odyssey of Scott and company; on the contrary, in “Nunatak” the narrative is sacrificed in favour of a sound context where the internal and external landscape feed off of each other until they end up devouring each other. It’s not clear (and this is its greatest virtue) whether what we are listening to is a sound image in an arctic setting, or the emotional desolation of those who are exploring it. There are fifty minutes of resonating sounds, virtual harmonics, and silences of stunning dramatic richness. In this sense, “Nunatak” reaches where dark ambient will never be able to go because of an excess of generic conditioning factors: the absence of tragedy, the paradoxical delicacy with which Köner handles a sound that is brutal, like a cathedral, making the work transcend the many labels that could be placed on it at first sight, from sound art to pure hardcore electro-acoustic music.The thermometer doesn’t change much with “Teimo”, although in this case a few rays of winter sunlight refract through its eight songs. Köner continues with his polar fixation; “Ilira” resorts again to the Inuktitut language, while the three parts of “Nieves Penitentes,” (“Penitent Snows” in Spanish), need little explanation, which is added to the (under)water interests that he would later return to with Porter Ricks. And it is precisely this aquatic element that helps to polish the formal rough edges of its predecessor. Instead of the abrupt distribution of materials in “Nunatak”, in “Teimo” the German turns to a more fluid organisation, and (never better said) to sound. The use of drone acts here to hold everything together, which, along with the predominant use of the synthesiser, gives greater smoothness to the whole, which can be placed in a register close to less comfortable ambient. Something like the gloomy reverse of Biosphere.
Everything good about these two first volumes, which is a lot, is synthesised and sublimated in “Permafrost.” The German artist abstracts from “Nunatak” the depth and intelligent use of timing. From “Teimo”, he takes the continuity and feeling of being wrapped up. And far from being a mere exercise in style, he creates his magnum opus: a feast for the senses that gains even more thanks to the spectacular re-mastering of the re-edition presented now by Type. Deep, infinite, “Permafrost” is a perceptual black hole that absorbs the notion of space and time –Herr Köner, please, we beg you: a multichannel version– and which nearly two decades after its appearance reveals itself to be immune to the passing of time. That’s what cryogenics has going for it.
2. The Taming of the Shrew
Starting from the work of Thomas Köner and other formally similar producers like Robert Hampson (Main), James Plotkin or John Duncan, around about 1993 Kevin Martin –today The Bug and King Midas Sound, then in God and Techno Animal– pulled the term “isolationism” out of his sleeve, a rather vague term that he wanted to use to group together a series of disparate discourses under the premise of a new concept of ambient that was dystopian and solipsistic. Conceptually, the idea had more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese, but it got its fifteen minutes of fame and left us a compilation to refer to, “Ambient 4: Isolationism” (Virgin, 1994). Precisely in this double CD somebody else who is once again current also participated: Mick Harris.Our friend Harris is a case worth studying. Although he has been treated as a fundamental or at least influential element in endless movements—grindcore, isolationism, illbient, post-rock, dubstep—his figure continues to be one of those most poorly treated by the press and by history. Nevertheless, although his impressive resume might fool you (Napalm Death, Defecation, Painkiller, Lull, Praxis, Scorn), we aren’t exactly looking at a case of flagrant injustice. The thing is that the man has a character on him: for twenty years he has been at odds with critics, record companies, and practically everybody who crosses his path. In fact, I still get chills when I remember the scene he made at Sonar ‘95 after he tried gazpacho following my advice: broken plates and shouts of, “But what kind of fucking country is this, where you eat your soup cold?” Poor thing.
But as I was saying, Harris is back in the ring with “Refuse; Start Fires” (Ohm Resistance), Scorn’s 14th album. Whether it’s because the stars are aligned, or because an audacious manager has managed to tame him, or because they’ve doped him up on tranquilisers, the fact is that suddenly the whole world seems to be in agreement to finally give him the support that he has been denied for decades. And hey, I think that’s great. The man has paid his dues. And he continues to do so: “Refuse; Start Fires” doesn’t surprise, but it doesn’t disappoint either. It is 100% Scorn sound: comatose dub, atmospheres with a very bad vibe, and, like always, basses that are so heavy that if they fall on your foot they will break it into five different pieces. It has gained dynamism with the incorporation of drummer Ian Treasey on some songs, but as a whole it still sounds as hard as cement. Just like it should.
3. The Pendulum Effect
The most interesting thing about Harris’ sudden beatification is seeing how it connects with other signs—like the re-publishing of Köner, the success of The Bug, the comebacks of Seefeel and Godflesh, the predictable reclaiming of the tiresome Pete Namlook– of the 90’s revival that might be waiting just around the corner. A return, it must be clarified, in today’s style: fragmentary and selective. If the revival of the 80’s has lasted so long—if we can finally consider it to be over once and for fucking all—it’s because the sources for revision have been entirely exhausted in a non-chronological, but linear sequence: first electroclash, then post-punk, then rave music, then minimal synth, and, already accompanied by its death rattles, mainstream pop. A possible “back to the 90’s” could start off with the reclaiming of an exceptionally fertile historical moment: the happy chaos that brought together the experimental and extreme with the (almost) danceable, with dub and ambient as a pretext, between ‘93 and ‘96. The coordinates, in the aforementioned “Ambient 4: Isolationism” and in “Macro Dub Infection” (Virgin, 1995). If the circumstances arise, start dusting off your flannel shirts or flee to Kazahkstan, because the next thing could be neo-grunge. Glug.
Giuseppe Ielasi: “15 Tapes” (Senufo)The format continues to be “the challenge,” as friends of Alku would say. Parallel to his fact as a fine ambient musician, the Italian Giuseppe Ielasi has been exploring the sound possibilities of the format from a very interesting compositional perspective. We discovered it in the two parts of his series “Stunt”, dedicated to vinyl, and we certify it with this “15 Tapes”, a sort of treatise on the Schaffer musical object about cassette tapes and players. “15 CDs” is already around.
Kabutogani: “Bektop” (Mille Plateaux)Yes, it was put out a couple of months ago, but since nobody paid the least bit of attention to it—look how low the Mille Plateaux name has fallen– I have taken the liberty of reclaiming the power of the fourth album of the French Jerome B from here: sharp polyrhythm like knives, digital noise, and melodic sediment in perfect doses. Nothing new, but it is hard to find an album that surprises like this one with budgets as trite as this one’s. If Raster-Noton had put it out, everybody would be rubbing their crotch over it.
Tobias Reber : “Backup Aura” (Hyperfunction)I’ve listened to it a thousand times, and I still can’t figure out the trick. Sometimes it seems like sound art, but listening to it is too pleasant to fit entirely into such an un-fun category. Of course it isn’t post-rock, although “Blech” could well be a Radian song. And something as lovely as “We Wonder” points directly to Stephan Mathieu, but that isn’t it either. Add mentions of industrial dub ( “Glocker”), drones ( “Mundane Concerns”) and even Morton Subotnik ( “Container”) et voilà: the weirdest of the weird albums of the month.
Ubeboet: “Archival” (Moving Furniture)Miguel Ángel Tolosoa, from Madrid, has been at the head of the magnificent label Con-V for six years, and he spent as long again publishing here and there –EarLabs, Zeromoon, Twenty Hertz and a long, heavy etc. list– such as Ubeboet. “Archival”, his first vinyl, is a highly intriguing artefact: “Orange”, filling all of the A-side, travels through territory near the estates of Francisco López or NWW –following the line of this column, we should then speak of isolationism. But on the B-side… ah, my friends, things change. A lot: it has a sound that changes with the light, grandiose, and perpetually evolving. It’s too transcendental to be ambient. It’s too good to miss it.
Various: “Air Rings Vol.2” (Digitalis Ltd.)At the other end of the spectrum from the ashy sound of his latest works, Xela has put out the best song of his career with “In the Blinding Light They Came”: more than twenty minutes of glorious cosmic trip in an analogue rocket. Only for that, it’s worth getting this four-track split in the double cassette format. But Matt Carlsson ( Golden Retriver), Analog Concept and especially Cliffsides, one side each and each one with its own character, also do a killer job. State of the synth.