The joke comes up every couple of months or so on Twitter. ‘Broken fridge making weird buzzing sound,’ says underground music wit. “Gonna record it and release it as 1-hr drone tape.” (Substitute ‘washing machine’ for ‘fridge’ and ‘noise’ for ‘drone’ if you like). Funny, right? Only Ben Gwilliam’s only gone and done it, with this release on Mantile, which features Dictaphone recordings from inside various freezers made between 2010 and 2015. But before you cry out ‘I could have done that’, just bear in mind the fact that you didn’t and Gwilliam did. Got it? Right.
And anyway, this is a perfectly engaging slice of auditory ebb, part dronic drift and part mechanickal field recording, one that floats around at the edge of audibility, enigmatic and impassive, as insubstantial as mist but with an ability to alter the vibes in the room to eerie calm or sweaty fright respectively.
Part of this tape’s attraction is that it is a glimpse into a different world. Very few people have spent time in domestic freezer cabinets, I’ll wager. Maybe you’ve wondered: What’s it like when you close the door? What if, by some bizarro quantum effect, a portal to an entirely different universe opened up? Like some deranged Ghostbusters trip with Sigourney Weaver howling at a burning orange sun?
If the reality of what’s in the box is somewhat less prosaic than the fantasy, it’s no less fascinating, like the old adage of the tree falling in the forest revisioned for our urbanised, mediated age. There’s no one in the freezer, but we hear it.
We also hear the dictaphone itself, as it runs out of power and freezes, along with additional clunks and clicks that may be Gwilliam retrieving the recording device (or maybe the sounds of the device itself as it eases into icy hibernation), which frames the whole recording in a nice act of self-referential sonics . Machine mediated by machine. Mournful circuits. The archetypical sad robot vibe with all the anthropomorphism coldly excised.
This lack of humanistic sentiment means that, while Breakdownspedup doesn’t make any concessions to the listener – it is what it is, pure and simple – it makes few demands either. It is almost deliberately incomplete, shorn of narrative or structural devices, its whirring hums and thin, percussive flaps daring us to flood it with our anxieties and neuroses. We complete it by turning it into a nightmarish soundtrack to a serial killer’s daily routines, a cosmic metronome for a daily meditation, a post-Cageian examination of the sounds of everyday life. Or all of the above. Or none of it.