Multiple sweet spots are well and truly nailed in this double release, on two of the most consistent labels of the ongoing cassette revival, by one of the most intriguing outcrops in the experimental music landscape. That all of this – labels and performers – emanates from the bonelands of northwestern England acts as a particularly resonant synchronicity that would make local sage Alan Garner proud. These tapes come as the latest iterations in a run of strong form by the Manchester duo of Kelly Jane Jones and Pascal Nichols that encompasses 2014’s Dialogue;Erosion double CDr (Tactual Chatter) and last year’s frankly amazing Pike/Portent on Golden Labs – not to mention, of course, a back catalogue full of delights running back to around 2007.
The Part Wild Horse’s Mane on Both Sides aesthetic merges cosmic ritual with deeply considered improvisation to create an individual and compelling world. It’s an approach that hasn’t changed much over recent outings, yet it supports repeated investigations. The duo’s careful manipulation of their chosen, admittedly quite straightforward, parameters – percussion, simple electronics, some tapes and flute – leads each release into unique and addictive terrain. Less is certainly more in their case. The name, of course, comes from a move in Tai-Chi and the duo share with that ancient martial art a dedication to a powerful stillness and focus. Every gesture, however small, is deeply considered and exactly right, but this care never sacrifices fluidity or intuition, trusting the vibrations to keep them on the right path.
Aulos’ Second Reed original came out in 2014 in a limited vinyl run on Canada’s Beniffer Editions, and so this re-release by David McLean on his own Tombed Visions imprint offers a welcome second chance to get our hands on this wonderful piece of music. It lays down two long pieces of flute, drum and electronics exploration that are entrancing and terrifying at the same time, like Herbie Mann’s Stone Flute soundtracking a particularly dread-filled sequence from an early Akira Kurosawa film. Jones and Nichols let the tension build slowly, almost imperceptibly – at first, the solemn gongs and handbells punctuating the woody freshness of the flute lines seem mellow, devotional even, the folkish trills and irregular thunks searching for hidden, timeless melodies. Gradually, however, the unease creeps in, like night advancing over the land, a mood emphasised by the sounds of running water and wind rustling in the branches. The flute seems to be marking out a cautious journey through a forest, the percussion marking sudden, mysterious movements. The pair avoids any direct resolution to this tension, instead inserting a mysterious section of scuffles, rustles and crackles at the start of the second side, before the sombre return of the woodwind and percussion. McLean’s release notes rightly reference Takemitsu’s score for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 Kwaidan, but this detour, ostensibly a deployment of straight-ahead improv techniques, brings to mind a diegetic soundtrack for an alternate ending to Seven Samurai that sees our eponymous heroes massacred, with a final tracking shot of the village they struggled in vain to defend left a smoking ruin.
Oh Sylvia, on Callum Stephen Higgins’ Sacred Tapes, amps up the chilly isolation, scuffing up its textures for a craggier, alienated terrain. There’s still flute and percussion, but the sinuous flow heard on Aulos’ Second Reed is broken up by extended passages of gritty, minimalist noise, atonal spears of feedback and lagoons of icy silence. We could still be in Kurasawa territory, but this is the freezing fog of the Spider Web Forest and the desolate corridors of Lord Tsuzuki’s castle. The freeform poem accompanying the release talks of lithosphere speaker/auric harmonics/tonal degenerations … wavering summits and those enigmatic words seem to, somehow, reflect the flinty planes of the work. Its unhurried progression is characteristic, as is the refashioning of core elements into new outputs in a continuing process, equal parts alchemical and technological. In fact, Oh Sylvia seems to have that simultaneous sense of being both ancient and modern woven into the crystal lattice of its DNA. The growling, low-end drones and disembodied vocals of its first part (Sylvia Undata) seem to emanate from the boulders and topsoil of a harsh mountain landscape, ghost voices from stone tapes, while the dissonant squeals and abrasive vibrations of its second half (Unknown Bird Species) howl like some ancient machine, a generator cast from granite, perhaps, or the coming together of an orchestra of bones and feathers.