David Birchall: Soft Vowels


Raw Tonk CD and download

This album of solo guitar and electronic manipulations from Manchester improviser and artist Birchall sounds a bit like someone’s stuck a microphone into the rocky mulch of my back garden and then whacked the recording level right up. It’s a record punctuated with all sorts of mucky scrapes and squeaks, punctuated with resonant plinks and all sorts of scruffy grunts and grumbles. But the outcome is good, Birchall’s nervy manipulations making the recordings teem with life.

For something that could conceivably fall into the category of lower case improv, if you’re standing in the right position with the wind in the right direction, Birchall manages to work up a fair old racket. The title track has an almost rubbery, squeaking quality, reminiscent of a crazed balloon artist. The piece immediately after, She Asked Herself For The Third Time That Week What Would Emma Goldman Do? starts with the Sonic Youth metallic behind the bridge clanging, then exploding into clotted, fuzzy burps before lapsing into an almost obsessive, scratchy pattering.

Birchall gets a lot out of his restricted sonic palette, seemingly able to conjure up an endlessly varied set of gritty, furrowed textures. He’s got a way with titles, too – my favourite is I’m Surprised Someone So Young Knows of Sonny Sharrock, which takes almost as long to say as Birchall takes to play the track (52 seconds, fact fans).

On Bedroom Psychogeography (another great title), Birchall moves beyond the subterranean, towards a kind of locked-in desperation. The track’s abortive, stuttering abrasions suggest a figure cocooned in frustration, unable to break free from the mental chains that block any kind of redemptive action and instead circling round in endless cycles of despair. It’s a rare moment of angst, though, in an album whose mood is mischievous and playful, albeit in a somewhat deadpan way.

By the final track, Walking Backwards, Birchall seems to have dived head first into a garden pond, letting rip with an aqueous gurgling that is less suggestive of his instrument’s frets and strings than of the swarming, wriggling underwater masses, engaged in the eternal merry-go-round of life, death and reproduction, impervious to the world of air and sky above the surface.


Get it here.


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