A Liminal Review: Earth by Black To Comm (March 12th, 2012)

For his first release on De Stijl, Black To Comm, aka Marc Richter decided to document his soundtrack to a short film by Korean artist Ho Tzu Nyen. It’s a typically leftfield concept from Richter, and it’s just a shame I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the film (also called Earth) to assess the merits of this album as a soundtrack. However, as a piece of music, despite the absence of its visual counterpart, Earth stands up very well on its own. As with his landmark Alphabet 1968 album, released in 2008, the musical focus on Earth is the use of found sounds, shellac record manipulation and hesitant electronic drones to create dense, yet elusive, sonic tapestries that slowly unfold to envelop the listener in a blanket of mystery and sensuality. On Earth, Richter achieves this with even more consistency than on Alphabet 1968, which is surely down to the fact that it’s a soundtrack.

Apart from his own experiments with ghostly shimmers of elusive atmospherics, Richter brings one particularly potent element to the fray on Earth, and that is the distinctive voice of David Aird, best known for his work as Vindicatrix, and who released one of my favourite electronic albums of the last two or three years in Die alten bösen Lieder on Mordant Music. Aird’s vocals are sensual and rather mannered, as befits someone with a penchant for traditional German folk song. On ‘Stickstoff II’, he comes on like a clone of Scott Walker, with a deep, enunciated croon that glides perfectly over the humming, droning and occasionally squalling musical background, bringing a palpable human edge to what otherwise could be an abstractly cold piece. And throughout Earth it’s of erstwhile pop star Walker that one thinks even when listening to the music, albeit the Scott of Tilt and The Drift rather than Scott 4. On ‘Stickstoff II’ and ‘Water’, Richter and his collaborators’ mixture of field noise, singing bowls and looped vinyl form the kind of “blocks of sound” Walker used to describe his most experimental work, albeit stretched slowly across entire tracks rather than dispersed across individual songs. Additionally, the scratchy vinyl loops and murky samples evoke the crackling ambience of Philip Jeck whilst the sudden surges of unusual found sounds had me thinking of Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin’s Air Supply. Earth does not feel out of place alongside such avant-garde classics.

The concept behind Ho Tzu Nyen’s film -from what I can gather- is a cyclical exploration of sleep, awakening, decay, life, death and resurrection inspired by classical European painters such as Caravaggio and Delacroix, and Richter’s music on Earth is similarly circular and based on collage, with elements building uneasily up on top of one another, then slowly dissolving into further expanses of moody, haunted atmospherics. The twisted bodies locked in decrepit surroundings on the cover art (taken from the film) are refracted through Aird’s plaintive voice, his cries becoming the sound of despairing souls caught in some oblique post-apocalyptic landscape. Almost imperceptibly, Richter and Aird manage to suffuse Earth with substantial pathos, bringing it closer and closer to its cinematic inspiration.

For all that, Earth does leave you wishing you could see Ho Tzu Nyen’s film, but maybe that was to be expected. As a soundtrack, it appears tied to the duration and themes of the work that it reflects and it may seem a bit abstract without the visual reference for some. Yet it has to be said that Richter has managed to create something singular and worthwhile despite this slight impediment, and for that he deserves an awful lot of credit. Earth is a great addition to Black to Comm’s increasingly intriguing body of work.

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