Some artists fill the air with noise. Others challenge us with silence. Alfred23Harth does neither, and yet more, creating richly detailed tapestries that are as lushly physical as the teeming jungles of Asia yet as tantalizingly insubstantial as the clouds of mist that hover above them.
Although working predominantly with the saxophone in his earlier career, Harth’s recent work has seen this instrument almost subsumed in layers of hubbub. Voices and drones vie with electronics, clatters and samples, coalescing into a bubbling cacophonic mantra.
As Yves Drew A Line. Estate, released in 2013 on the Honk Kong Re-Records label, was a sophisticated example of his craft, eerie and enlightening in equal measure (read my review here). Explorations continued in China Collection, released earlier this year on the Texan micro label Kendra Editions, which brought together various of Harth’s collaborations and commissions in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
These pieces extend Harth’s practices, creeping across genre borders to refine his aesthetic. Simulator 3 for String Quartet embraces modern composition, resembling Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of The Titanic as its polite string figures are gradually submerged under waves of electronic noise.
Peking Opera Remix III meanwhile acts out a kind of garish plunderphonics, further mangling Harth’s own Peking Opera sampledelica (initially created with long-time collaborator Heiner Goebbels and subsequently brutally reconfigured by Otomo Yoshihide’s Ground Zero) with meta-textual art terrorist glee.
Five Eyes, released by German experimental label Moloko Plus, unites Harth with experimental percussionist Wolfgang Seidel. Recorded in Germany and Seoul, it’s grittier and noisier than those previous albums, with a harshening of textures previously smooth and luminous. Occasionally it sounds like the musique concrete edifices of Helm’s Hollow Organ EP, but more liquid, pervasive, psychedelic.
Wolfgang Seidel is a synth player as well as a drummer. He’s a founding member of seminal German DIY anarchist proto-punk band Ton Steine Scherben and was a long-time collaborator with Kosmische music guru Conrad Schnitzler.
Seidel, appropriately, brings a more rhythmic sense to this collage of electronics, samples and horns. His percussive interventions range from textural clatters and arrhythmic noise through to more conventional rhythmic grids for several of the tracks.
On opener Heartbleed, Harth’s overlapping tendrils of saxophone mark groovy curlicues over a bed of crunches and whirrs. Dubby echoes and distorted swathes of sound rise like flood waters under the command of a clomping beat. The 16-minute Anticrisis Girl is calmer and colder, lounge music from a dystopian future. Sparse horns merge with electronics as disembodied vocals holler and chant.
Any thoughts of chilled vibes are banished by the full-on assault of Turbine. Hissy like a pit of vipers and abrasive as broken glass soaked in acid, its electronic soundscape squeals and spits, while the percussion hammers away, like firecrackers exploding uncontrollably. It’s oppressive, alien and scary, a descent into some hellish apocalypse. The taped vocal announcement that appears halfway through, repeating “1993…1971”, only adds to the bad trip vibe.
In fact, the whole album resembles a picaresque journey through some terror-filled landscape, a Hieronymus Bosch country where murder and starvation haunts the fields and hedges, or a descent into a Dantean hell where the cries of the dead – courtesy of the expressive and spectral vocal contributions of Nicole van den Plas, Bill Shute and Boris Stout – and the horrors of their punishment grow ever louder and more impossible to block out.
This feeling is nowhere more evident than during the extended sprawl of Tempora. An initial clattering ringing, like a child running a stick across metal railings, subsides into a rhythmic thrum, regular as a train rumbling across an anonymous countryside. Reedy synths wash in and out of earshot, voices too, dreamlike in their unintelligibility. Percussion clatters about, restless, brassy, fidgeting. It is like watching a film of some strange ritual at double speed.
There’s much more to Alfred23Harth than this short review could ever hope to cover – the dizzying range of collaborators and ensembles with which he has played, his visual art, his four volumes of microtonal sax experiments, to name but a few – and I’d recommend spending some time on his meticulously curated website to get a fuller picture of his diverse talents.
But, for now, almost overwhelming, dissonant plenitude of Five Eyes should be enough to be going on with. To listen to Five Eyes is to be parachuted, uncomprehending, into Harth and Seidel’s hostile, swirling universe. There’s no guide on this journey, no one to lead you from the chaos into harmony. You have to make your own way through it, and, in doing so, achieve some kind of understanding.
You can get Five Eyes from Moloko Plus records, here.
Check out Alfred23Harth’s website here.