Sometimes it feels like this music is coming from far away, a weak signal through broken cathode ray tube. I can’t quite get the tuning right, infinitesimal tweaks of the dial only add to the snow of glitch and interference. At other times, there’s an immediacy akin to peering down a microscope at a shellac 78, the replicated contours of its grooves shimmering in clouds of echo, ancient scratches amplified to bursts of electronic ordnance.
Three years in the making, Kostis Kilymis’ Bethnal Greener pulls off a pretty marvellous trick of creating an electroacoustic sound world in which humanity is (almost) completely absent, yet one in which its creator is never less than totally in control of the enigmatic sounds he has produced.
I’ve been listening to a lot of improvised electroacoustic and noise music lately, and one of the things that’s struck me about is that its creators – although often supremely, intuitively talented in their craft – can’t help dropping into humanistic forms, creating linear narratives that often alternate slow building crescendos with quieter breakdowns. It’s the experimental music version of the quiet-loud-quiet paradigm afflicting guitar rock, and it’s a pretty natural thing to happen when you’ve got two humans interacting on a stage or in a studio.
You don’t get this on Bethnal Greener, and that’s definitely a good thing. This is due in part to Kilymis’ method – he uses computer-based composition rather than improvisation as his starting point –but it’s also down to the care and precision of his execution. Sure, there are quieter bits and louder bits, but the relationship between them is much more subtle. For example, curl your ears round the dynamics of A Little Something for the Weekend, with its almost surreal juxtapositions of wind, echoing drum machine patter and what sounds like the mini-railway at a suburban garden centre to hear his technique at work. This all gives Bethnal Greener a shape that’s more akin to a circuit diagram, its separate pieces interconnected yet separate, coming together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
Stylistically, Bethnal Greener is probably closer to the dense impasto of Kilymis’ 2013 release on Entr’acte, More Noise Ahead –as seen in particular on pieces like the whining, mussed scrim of A Line, Obscured– than the delicate watercolour wash of his Syn Dromes recordings. It feels like he’s reigned in some of his noisier tendencies here, which gives this album a greater poise than its more unruly predecessor. The problematizing of rhythm, particularly drum machine beats, is a characteristic that unites all of these records, with programmed kick drums adding stilted un-grooves to tracks like The Map Is Not The Territory, or individual bars of thud and crack used as punctuation or texture in others (such as the strange, splintered blips in Stepney Way).
Yet traces of humanity remain, like ghost pixels in a malfunctioning web browser. Field recordings pop up in unexpected places, a sudden rush of air into an enclosed room. The Ghost in the Typewriter (for Leif Elggren), for all its twitching electro-magnetism, uses sounds sourced from a contact mic’d tower block. As I’m writing this, its low-frequency thrum gains traction and merges with gritty thumps and scrapes of the builders next door, forming a thick sonic tapestry. Are those voices from them, endlessly discussing the heights of walls and depth of trenches, or from the field recordings that Kilymis’ embeds seamlessly in his recordings? Inside and outside has merged perfectly.