Stuart Chalmers: Imaginary Musicks Vols 1 and 2

Imaginary Musicks Vol. 1 (self-released CDr, Beartown Records cassette, digital download); Imaginary Musicks Vol. 2 (self-released CDr, digital download)

Stuart Chalmers assembles marvellously detailed sound collages, sonic phantasmagoria squirted out from where plunderphonics, music concrete, new age music and good old-fashioned drone intersect. He deploys the usual bank of gubbins – synths, cassette players, pedals – but the result is unusually dense and compelling,

Imaginary Musicks is a good title for his two most recent collections – they really do sound like the knackered products of some other civilisation, battered wax cylinders found by louse-ridden chancers sniffing around twilight ruins and carefully restored into some kind of wavering half-life. Messages from long ago or far away. Yet there are smidgeons of familiarity here, instruments and motifs that are somehow recognisably almost human, which makes things all the more uncanny. Are these voices of ghosts from the past or from the future?

Imaginary Musicks Vol. 1, released in March 2014 on a self-released CDr and download, as well as on cassette by our friends at Beartown Records, digs deep into a trippy kitsch ambience.

At first, the vibe is a hybrid of Erich von Daniken’s pre-Colombian jungle visitations and a Carlos Castaneda desert communion. Languid, mist-wreathed drones open up wormholes in time and space as wind instruments carve sinuously alluring melodies into the air as we seem to float karmically over the landscape like some goofy Thomas Pynchon anti-hero vibing on the strangeness.

On Song of the Desert Plains, swooping wooden flutes flutter against juddering synth washes and cymbal scrapes. Mandala lays down a full on ululating mass of pygmy pipes which bob and wave among echoes of shimmering gamelan. These tracks are like aural artefacts, languishing among the shrunken heads in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum, only to be uncovered by one of the lurid eccentrics haunting the pages of David Toop’s Exotica.

Yet the album is also haunted by broken down technology, old phonograms, crumbling magnetic tape, burnt out analogue electronics. Chalmers coaxes the sounds trapped within those media into new shapes, giving them new life in a new age. Spirits of the Phonograph Era enacts a kind of hauntological turntablism, those ancient distorted voices calling out to a barebones drum machine and synth riff.

Walpurgis Night, on the other hand, seems to imagine a time where those old radiophonic valve cabinets and reel-to-reel tapes break out of the museums, their sleek curvilinear surfaces and manic unspoolings the soundtrack to a dance across the moonlit sky.

By Volume 2, however, we’re in crunchier territory. Chalmers’ aesthetic here abandons the New Age cheese in place of a raddled mechanist judder, hat cocked firmly towards Pierre Schaeffer, or, more recently Jar Moff when he’s in a more madcap frame of mind.

Looping electronic squiggles vie with ear-splitting crashes and unhinged wavering drones. This is Toy Story for noise music, a soundtrack of what all those sound-making devices do when you’re not there – they get together and make music far more thrilling than humans ever could. You can taste a slice of that pie on Trace, its wibbling cosmonaut grooves less Subotnik, more Sputnik.

The chirruping thrums, wind chime bongs and splintered volts of War on Nature, meanwhile, are like a huge angry bruise on the face of an Easter Island Head, at once inscrutable yet making its heavy manners totally intelligible on a subliminal level.

It’s all rather fun to be honest, with a chunky alien feel that makes a lot of other so-called experimental music seem rather staid.

In this second volume Chalmers is intent on filling up every last inch of space with sound – a sharp contrast to the echoing spaces of its forerunner – and the tracks seem constantly in motion, vibrating and screeching and rotating with far-out energy, the valves and diodes of the machine world in their full glory.

Check out To Be Lost Is To Be Found for a taste of this, distorted vocal loops and noise fragments augmented by what sounds like a brood of hens clucking like there’s no tomorrow.

There’s a kind of entropic decay that kicks in towards the end of the album, however, a leaching away of power that results in a nicely mournful aura, elegiac resonance and falling drones, as on the perfectly titled Abandoned Cities, perhaps signalling the retreat or hibernation of these strange other civilisations in the face of the inexorable rise of the humans.


You can get both volumes of Imaginary Musicks from Stuart’s Bandcamp site. Volume 1 is still available on cassette from Beartown Records.


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