A Dusted Review: Rituals by David Shea (November 21st, 2014)

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David Shea is an American avant-garde composer and occasional turntablist who has released records on experimental labels including Sub Rosa and John Zorn’s Tzadik, but who has clearly found an even more suitable stable in Lawrence English’s Room 40, on whichRituals see the light of day. The bulk, if not all, of the material(s) on Rituals was recorded in English’s native Australia, and from field recordings taken in the bush to the very psychological fabric of the album, it’s a work imbued with the spirit of that distant continent. From simple sources (found sounds, instruments, voices), Shea interweaves and juxtaposes each element into a rich sonic tapestry that instantly makes Rituals a challenging and invigorating experience.

A title like Rituals of course suggests a spiritual dimension, and Shea takes inspiration from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of east and southeast Asia. He opens the album with a more “western” (for lack of a better word) single voice incantation pitched somewhere between Popol Vuh’s Hosianna Mantra and the devotional folk music of Armenia, that almost imperceptibly transforms into an extended chanted period seemingly recorded inside a Buddhist temple. The incantatory vocalisations are melded together and then buffeted by all-encompassing drones on harmoniums, horns and strings that suggest a primordial force.

The vibrations become almost painful when played at high volume. All this comes within the first few minutes of “Ritual 32,” the album’s potent opening movement. As the voices recede, a piano takes over, playing out a circular, low-key melody in the post-jazz tradition of Keith Jarrett circa The Köln Concert. As with Jarrett’s masterpiece, what could have easily been puerile noodling is masterfully kept in check to be elevated into something affective and emotional, whilst lingering moments of decay evoke the minimalist piano works of Michael Nyman and LaMonte Young. By the time the voices return, “Ritual 32” has become an otherworldly experience as opposed to a mere composition, and the transition into an almost gamelan-esque final coda seems perfectly appropriate. Shea claims that a ritual “puts the experience of listening at the centre of the works,” and this has rarely been more true in music than on this opening masterwork.

Far from overshadowing what follows, however, “Ritual 32” merely sets the tone for an album that maybe errs on the side of excessive lengthiness but always stays true to its composer’s philosophy of sound and desire to create a work that’s truly immersive. Field recordings dominate “Emerald Garden” and “Wandering in the Dandenongs” in very different ways. On the former they are surrounded by clusters of abrasive white noise, movie-soundtrack eerie synths and austere moments of contemplative drone.

In the latter the harsh environment of the Australian outback is recreated initially with the fidelity of a Chris Watson piece, although Shea quickly shows his interest in the music of Luc Ferrari as all preconceptions of field recordings are destabilised.Lo-fi flutes and recorders kick in around five minutes in, joined by other primitive instruments such as hand drums, whilst the sounds of birds and insects are amplified, as if the listener has just stumbled onto some bizarre, substance-fueled campfire ritual during which perception itself is rendered unreliable and more than a little treacherous. Less imposing than the similarly-lengthy “Ritual 32,” “Wandering in the Dandenongs” achieves similar results by simply being unfathomable and oblique.

Throughout Rituals there is an insistence on focusing on the very impact of music upon the physical realm, as if this could somehow make for a crossover into domains far beyond human perception. It’s no surprise to see Australian multi-instrumentalist and prolific composer Oren Ambarchi crop up on two tracks (notably the emphatic incantatory closer “Green Dragon Inn”), not to mention Lawrence English on another, because both have attempted similar experiments in traversing planes through sound. I’m no spiritualist, but Shea makes a compelling case on Rituals, his deep, resonant, vibrating assembly of tones, drones and sounds reaching deep into the listener’s body, causing it to tremble with cymatic force.

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A Quietus Review: They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them by Robert Curgenven (November 4th, 2014)

This album, London-based Australian artist Robert Curgenven’s second in the space of a few months, is centred on themes of colonisation: of land, of peoples, of the environment. As the title suggests, Curgenven obviously takes a dim view of how the privileged and powerful (white colonial powers in the 18th-century, land-grabbing mega-corporations and so on) have gone about achieving their supremacy over the planet and those of its inhabitants less able or inclined to snatch and burn; and even suggests that payback is imminent, and bound to be messy for those involved. Of course, as with the musings on the seascapes surrounding Cornwall (where his ancestors hail from) that formed the basis for previous opus Sirène, these concepts are ambiguous and abstract, refracted through the myriad details and clever compositions that make up the music on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

On his website, Curgenven provides links to numerous studies, interviews and reports that flesh out the ideas I mentioned above and extend his ruminations beyond the experience of Australia, notably its beleaguered and oppressed indigenous peoples, into reflections on colonialism and racism as global issues. An interview with Achille Mbembe on the Eurozine website provides intellectual background to the ways in which colonial attitudes, supposedly driven by humanism and universalism, became vehicles for violence, war and ecological disaster. Mbembe posits “post-colonial theory” as a means to move beyond the hangover from Europe’s darkest legacy after the Second World War, and reading his articulate arguments becomes more and more affecting when we consider tragedies like the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing wars in (amongst others) Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all direct fall-outs from colonial abuse. Returning back to Australia, there are clear cases where the country’s imperialist past have continued to filter into public attitudes, to the point that the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott even insouciantly claimed that Australia “unsettled” before the British showed up. Niall Ferguson may praise British Imperialism as much as he likes, but, from the plight of Australian indigenous peoples to the anti-gay laws countries such as Uganda and Jamaica inherited from their former colonial powers, the negative effects of European dominion over other lands has rippled through history to the present day. Achille Mbembe’s “post-colonial theory” is as vital as it has ever been, and so therefore is They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

Amongst the various recommendations, some of which I mentioned above, is Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 masterpiece Walkabout, in which two rich English children find themselves abandoned in the Australian desert and are rescued by an Aboriginal youth who stumbles across them whilst on a rite of passage involving spending several months isolated in the desert. To assemble the various parts of what became They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them, Curgenven, over ten years, embarked on his own walkabout, after a fashion, amassing a series of field recordings from remote parts of his home country, and these form the backbone of the album’s two tracks. Anyone who heard Sirène will already be familiar with the Australian’s deft touch at mixing, and here the sounds of buzzing flies, gusts of wind and bird calls are gently intermingled with manipulated pipe organ drones, amorphous guitar feedback and a mixture of dubplates, turntables and oscillators. The pieces evolve organically, each detail emerging from the mix to paint a vivid mind’s-eye picture of a landscape both familiar and unsettlingly fractured, as if Curgenven has unearthed a dark underbelly under the desert’s sands or the pavements of a city. The album’s glacial pace lends a weightiness to the music, forcing concentration even as the composer refuses to coalesce his music into something overt or demonstrative. Just like Walkabout, there is as much to be learned from what isn’t clear on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them than from what is.

Given the grim subject matter of this album, it’s no surprise that They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them is a taut, even gruelling listen, its angry undertones reminiscent of another great work of field recording-based musique concrète from earlier this year, Valerio Tricoli’s Miseri Lares. But in the more peaceful moments, when the crumbling textures recede into shimmering suspended tones, there’s also a peacefulness, as if Curgenven, perhaps inspired by Achille Mbembe and the prospect of formerly colonised people shaking off the yoke of history and the plunder of their natural resources, can see new signposts towards how we can reverse trends once seen as inevitable. First and foremost, this is the second beautiful and beguiling work of art Robert Curgenven has treated the world to in 2014, and maybe such small mercies are worth treasuring in such troubled times.