garden of forking paths: chrissie caulfield on stuart chalmers and tlön

March 14, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Stuart Chalmers – Imaginary Musicks Vol.2 (CD-r or download, Blood Diamond Music, BDM 005)

Tlön – Truth in the 13th (tape and download extras, Birkhouse Recordings, BIRK.007)

Imaginary Musicks2

I’m not even going to try and guess what instruments, objects and bent circuits Stuart Chalmers has used in his second volume of Imaginary Musicks. The range of sounds involved is quite remarkable and his grasp of the techniques of bending existing sounds to his will is better heard than analysed. If I describe sounds in this review it’s not necessarily what was used to make the noise, just what it sounds like to me [Editor’s note: no worries, that’s the RFM way].

That said, I think I’m on fairly safe ground (looks down expecting quicksand) in stating that this is substantially a Musique Concrète album, though that doesn’t really begin to describe the breadth of experiences it contains. There are sumptuous drones, beats made from household objects, tape noises and the occasional sax solo. If there is a track on here that you don’t particularly like, then simply skipping to the next one will bring something different for you to try. That’s not to say there is no consistency, there is; perhaps think of it as an aural version of the 1990s TV programme The Crystal Maze: buzzing with wild contraptions, bizarre puzzles and an enigmatic host – Chalmers himself.

Personally, the album had my full attention from the opening track ‘Breaking Chains’. After some gentle scratching and scraping it explodes into a glorious Ben Frost-like festival of noise that assaults the ears, with heavy drums, tortured saxophone squeals, delay feedback and all manner of shrieking and buzzing. If ever an album started with a…

WAKE UP AT THE BACK!

…call, this is it. ‘Breaking Chains’ lasts just three and a half minutes but I wanted it to go on longer. This is typical. Chalmers never outstays his welcome with anything on this album, the tracks are about the length of many popular songs but with far more originality. Like Richard O’Brien at his most frenetic, he opens a door, gives you a three or four minute puzzle and then whisks you onto something new.

There is a love here, that I share, of industrial and mechanical noises [Editor’s note: see Chrissie’s own excellent Mechanisms, as she’s too modest to mention it herself]. Chalmers drops you into a room of ghostly clocks in ‘War on Nature’, there are car horns and squeaky gates in ‘To Be Lost is To Be Found’ and ‘Abandoned Cities’, then you are required to grapple with motors in ‘Wax & Wane’. There are probably all sorts of other things that I’m sure I’ve missed either because they’ve been heavily processed or secreted beneath layers of other interesting sounds but that just adds to the puzzles that repeated listens will, possibly, reveal. Chalmers leaves you few clues – sometimes the titles seem as though they are descriptive, other times they merely add to the confusion.

‘Wax & Wane’ is another favourite of mine, partly because it’s another noisy one, but also because of the way the dense textures here are so careful constructed. The motor sounds provide a basis for cheesy organ and distorted guitars (see disclaimer above) as they fade into swirling synths and gurgling. It’s like you’re locked inside the body of the engine, trying to find a way out.

Each piece on this album is a single idea in its own right and that is both it’s beauty and, possibly, its weakness. There are wonderful tracks, but also several that feel as though they should be developed rather than stopping and moving onto the next idea. That would make it a different experience, of course, and the simplicity of those pieces definitely has appeal – always best to be left wanting more.

Truth in the 13th

I enjoyed this album but I have to say that Chalmer’s other release, a collaboration project with Liam McConaghy [Editor’s note: of the excellent Microdeform] called Tlön was even more to my taste. Truth in the 13th is much more synth-based and is comprised of slightly longer pieces which gives the music more chance to breathe and go through a little more development.

Again, the opener is a blinder. ‘Crepuscular’ begins with dark beats and haunting synths. Listening to this you definitely feel like you’re walking through an overgrown and dangerous forest at night – Crystal Maze’s entrance to the Aztec Zone with the lights switched off and alligators added to the pond. You get buzzed by giant insects early on, and later there are growls from larger animals that become quite terrifying in the manner of Ben Frost’s By The Throat.

Unlike Imaginary Musicks, the titles of the tracks on this album seem to be much more descriptive of what you’re going to get – or maybe I’m just very suggestible. ‘In Accordance With Divine Laws’ sounds to me like some sort of spooky, scratchy church service, complete with indistinct singing – though over what sounds like heavily distorted guitars. ‘Ancient Ruins’ takes you from the undergrowth into the full Aztec Zone in bright light where you can explore the buildings left after centuries of neglect.

As with the solo Chalmers album, this one is packed full of manipulated recorded samples and things that sound like vinyl scratches and radio noises – and here we also have even more powerful guitars and yet more synths added to the mix to give a generally thicker, often quite oppressive, sound. It’s highly risky to second guess the roles of the artists in a collaboration, these relationships are always more complex than you think, but for my money the influence of McConaghy adds something to Chalmers’ quirky puzzles that lifts them to a different level.

For me, the least appealing track on Truth in the 13th is the title track. The simple snare rhythm quickly gets boring and distracts from the otherwise good things happening around it. The two remixes of the track that are included, quite sensibly, play this down.

So, if you fancy a trip round the Aztec Zone, Mechanical Zone, the Futuristic Zone and others, I can recommend these releases to you. Personally, I’d still like to be whisked round them by a young Ed Tudor-Pole, but that’s probably just me.

—ooOoo—

Stuart Chalmers on Bandcamp

Blood Diamond Music (via Blue Spectrum Tapes)

Birkhouse Recordings

 

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