Phil Julian has been a stalwart of the London experimental electronic scene for nigh on 20 years now, with collaborative and solo works under his own name and the Cheapmachines alias that range from sandstorms of blasted noise to abstract electronic compositions resembling some kind of futuristic architecture, all CAD-generated curvilinear surfaces and impossible geometry.
He’s on a bit of a roll at the moment, with a slew of releases across a diverse set of labels. I’ve focused on three of these here, although interested parties should also check out Trace, on Harbinger Sound, and his Waveset/Counterbalance tape on Beartown Records.
Julian’s collaboration with modular synth wrangler Jason Khan was recorded in 2012, when Khan was touring the UK. The two had corresponded before, and Julian had put out one of Khan’s releases (his collaboration with Francisco Meirino, Music For An Empty Cinema) on his Authorised Version label.
The initial idea was to record stuff then play around with it, but the meeting went so well that the pair ended up releasing their improvisations, via Mark Wastell’s Confront Recordings, pretty much as they were recorded.
It’s hectic, detailed stuff, spread across three un-named tracks. Khan’s on modular while Julian pilots his own digital-analogue hybrid setup, but their contributions meld beautifully.
There’s a questing, intuitive feel to proceedings, a result of the improvisatory nature of the meeting, no doubt, particularly on the opening track. Sounds and textures hiss and fizz, tumbling and multiplying like molecules in Brownian motion or bacteria under a microscope.
The second piece is moodier, with pure tones ringing above a layer of gritty static. Occasionally weird chirrups break out, cyborg sparrows above an oily city. The final track pushes further out, with a spitting, scouring wave of infernal noise, which seems to turn itself inside out halfway through, leaving an almost pastoral bed of whirrs and rumbles, via all sorts of analogue bleeps and burbles.
“Language is a nuisance/ Dishonest and vulgar …” intones Dale Cornish on Two Warhol’s Worth, his and Julian’s cassette on Tapeworm, “… Never quite getting it … right.”. But it’s this slippage and ambiguity that give Cornish’s vocal cut up rambles their ambiguous energy and deadpan humour on this set. Although an established electronic musician in his own right, save a few bits of ‘additional music’ on a couple of tracks, he sticks to an MES-meets-Adam Bohman vocal collage here, as Julian manipulates a variety of tangy electronic tones underneath.
The collaboration was sparked into life when Kevin Drumm gifted a Hewlett-Packard test tone generator to Julian (to avoid excess baggage charges apparently).
I’m not sure whether Julian uses this exclusively, but he sure rustles up a bracing range of settings for Cornish’s poem fragments. Each To His Own has a lovely deep space vibe, its staccato kick drum bursts strafing the echoing drones like radio waves across the cosmos.
For me, Personify A is a highlight, Cornish’s ‘”I’m working on me/I’m working too hard/I’m plotting a path/A career path/ I’ve joined a gym” recalibrating The Fall’s Eat Y’Self Fitter for the low-pay long-hours 21st century.
His utterances compete with Julian’s ear-splitting flutters, which sound like he is piloting a giant moth around the studio. At one point Cornish breaks into probably the worst approximation of the Hilliard Ensemble I’ve ever heard as he quotes Arvo Part. It’s bonkers and brilliant.
Another thing that strikes me about this recording is the humour that permeates Julian’s work. It’s not a comedy record – no John Otway or Half Man Half Biscuit Here – but rather a playful sense of the absurd and unexpected that keeps things fresh. The Khan collaboration too has an exuberance about it which adds to its sense of dynamism, probably helped by the duo performance I witnessed last month, to launch the CD, which saw Khan restlessly knob twiddling like some genius eccentric while Julian, as impassive as ever, conjured great blasts of carnage from his computer. What a double act!
That’s not to say that Julian, Khan and Cornish aren’t serious about their work. Far from it. All of the pieces I’m writing about here are deeply considered and executed with focus and intent that puts many other artists to shame.
Atlas, by contrast, sees Julian going solo, with three sparse compositions recorded during a residency the EMS Elektronmusikstudion Stockholm in 2013. There are two short pieces – both clocking in at just under two minutes – balanced by a longer 15-minute exploration.
While the initial limited run five-inch lathe cut disc is long-gone, Atlas is still available digitally from Julian’s Bandcamp site, and it is well worth investigating.
It is in Atlas that Julian’s architectural forms have room to breathe, without the need to grant any kind of sonic space to a collaborator. The shorter pieces are miniatures, sketches really, gleaming metallic constructions on a blank field, gestures to something not yet fully realised.
It all comes together the longer piece, which stretches out lazily across its 15-minute running time, the harsh edges of its polished chromium sounds hanging, ominous and strange like some vast structure out on the edge of the observable universe, a ring world perhaps, or a Dyson Sphere.
The architectural metaphor is of course problematic in some ways, given the debates about ‘starchitects’ and the colonising of urban space with cookie cutter avant-garde designs (Frank Gehry and your Spanish winery and spa, and Zaha Hadid and your Tokyo Olympic stadium, I’m looking at you.)
Some qualification is called for. These works of Phil Julian’s, Atlas in particular, are not like the context-free, profit-bloated spacialisations of flight capital that spring up in any world city with a relaxed enough planning process and sufficient stock of donor cash. Nah, these are something else. Idiosyncratic visions of possibility. Utopian visions of new worlds and new sounds. A way forward.
Phil Julian’s website is here
Valentines is available from Confront Records.
Two Warhol’s Worth is available from the Tapeworm.
Atlas is available from Phil’s Bandcamp site.