Midwich: Blisterpack (Bells Hill CDr and download); Daniel Bennett & Stephen Cornford: Fellfield Draff (Hideous Replica CD); Luciano Maggiore: 18 Rhythmic Studies for a Pen, a Cassette Case and a Korean Cassette Desk (Hideous Replica CD); Giovanni Lami: Bias (Consumer Waste CD)
Into the fug. Less ebbs and flows than interconnecting whirlpools, in which it is easy to mistake the gentler pulls of the outer reaches for periods of calm, unaware that all the time one is being pulled towards the next chaotic vortex. Or, from a different perspective: hazy clouds of Zen smugness morphing into caffeine-driven energy spurts, usually without warning. These days an even keel is too much to ask for. Ups and downs. Ins and outs. In the past few weeks (months?) I’ve barely been able to listen to any recorded sound for more than … ooh 20 minutes or so before the jitters kick in. So the pile gets bigger, the packages still come through the door and into my inbox and the guilt of not doing anything about it creeps in around the edges. But fuck it. Look on the bright side. We’re still here, aren’t we? Life goes on. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Does that help? Cheers! Another thing. Asynchronous listening is the norm now. An inverse relationship between the degree of everyday hecticness and the newness of the sounds. Release dates you say? Nah mate. Forget it. The pile is still there. I’ll just pull something from the heap and give it a go.
So where were we, before this latest break in proceedings? How about this clutch of releases, which seem to pull together in a kind of gristly flock. Neither sparklingly recent nor massively ancient, they seem to embody in their own ways, this emerging … thing called Extraction Music. You can read about here. It’s worth it, honest. Coined by Radio Free Midwich boss Rob Hayler (more about him below) to describe an emerging field of droney, cloudy sonic experimentation, the term resonates quite deeply with some of the stuff I’ve been listening to recently. That said, I suspect that my own take on extractionism is a tad more literal than Hayler’s. I can’t get away from the physicality of what ‘extraction’ means, an act of transformation that seems to cleave to an idea of heavy industry, of machines gouging raw materials out of the land. There’s a nostalgia too, this mode of cultural production that seems to take inspiration from industrial techniques now almost extinct, in the UK, anyway. Nearly all of the releases here seem, somehow, concerned with getting something out of somewhere and transforming it into a new artefact. Digging out and carving up. Extraction music. You get me? It can be metaphorical, symbolic, sure, but sometimes the idea seems all too literal. If artists aren’t actually digging up stuff – step forward Giovanni Lami – then their recordings seem to be the soundtrack of bloody huge earthmovers engaged in slow-motion ballet with subterranean power lines (hello Daniel Bennett and Stephen Cornford). Extraction music. That’s it, right there.
But to start, let’s approach this at an angle, with something produced by the man who coined the term. Blisterpack is a three-inch CD-R from Rob Hayler, aforementioned scuzzmusik wrangler extraordinaire and RFM Grand Vizier, which turned up in the post a few weeks ago. Hayler describes it as “a collection of fun, spiky sketches in the mode of the short interludes you’d often find on earlier Midwich recordings,” (Midwich is also his recording alias). It sums up these 12 tracks, which race past in just under 20 minutes, rather well. If I’m honest, this set is probably the least ‘extractiony’ of those under review here, but they get an honourable mention as a hat tip to Hayler for making the effort to do what he does, both in words and sound. They are, for the most part, snatches of drum machine clunk and electronic burble – occasionally tempered lovely patches of estuarine drone – the most accessible of which seem to reach out to the hinterlands of that more experimental R&B that seems to be popular with the kids at the moment. If only Beyoncé’s people had heard pieces like Shortorder when Ms. Knowles was putting together Lemonade, then we might have had a bona fidey no audience extraction music hip-hop smasheroo on our hands. As it is, we’ll just have to make do with these quirky miniatures – of which the hiccupping, clipped blipvert of Shotstopper is my current favourite, although honourable mention should go the moody title track and the harrumphing squelch of Panonicism. Proper gangsta.
Daniel Bennett and Stephen Cornford take Hayler’s extraction music principles and amp them up to a massive scale, like a vast limestone pavement hooked up to a warehouse that’s packed full of Tesla coils all prickling with energy. Fellfield Draff heaps buzzing electronics onto gusty blasts to create blankets of detailed but all-encompassing noise, all of which bristle with a sinister vibrancy. Their approach defamiliarises electroacoustic improv tropes – all those sullen whirrs, hisses and the like – by setting them against rather tempestuous widescreen sounds, yielding rich results, offering up an experience that’s both deep and wide. In fact, that dual perspective may be the reason why Fellfield Draff is so beguiling – the aural experience of viewing long-term shifts of geological time at the same time as peering down a microscope at the teeming minutiae in a single drop of water. Of the three pieces here, the first two tend towards drama in their sudden shifts from micro to macro – there’s a proper WTF moment at the start of Fell as the subtle electronic plinks of the first minutes are doused in a gravelly heave of noise as if a dump truck has just disgorged its load on top of an Alexander Calder mobile – but the final piece, Draff, achieves a subtle synthesis of brute force and beauty, its ominous low-end rumbles blending with popping squeals and bleats in an unstoppable, grit-laden steamroller. Impressive stuff.
If Bennett and Cornford are expansive, almost worldly in their explorations, Luciano Maggiore’s 18 Rhythmic Studies for a Pen, a Cassette Case and a Korean Cassette Deck shrinks the scope to a narrowband fixation on the sonic possibilities of his titular equipment. All of the pieces here were created on a single day in December 2015, using only the internal mic in the cassette deck and a looper. The near obsessive focus process and the miniscule variations in sound Maggiores’s technique produces make 18 Rhythmic Studies… perhaps the archetypical Hideous Replica release, with each of the featured cuts cycling through their reduced percussive clonks with the dogged and unrealising stubbornness of a subroutine locked in an eternal error loop. It’s fab, obviously, Maggiore’s deliberately limited approach providing a seemingly unlimited amount of variation. Sometimes the looping clicks have the battered groove of an old-school drum machine – no. 17 resembles the chassis of an ancient Lee Perry track, while no. 09 has a whiff of Burial’s night bus sway. Others (no. 15 or no. 19, for example) lurch like a stuck record. And, while I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are moments of intense irritation – if I never hear Rhythmic Study No. 08’s double time skip again I’d be very happy – that just adds to the fun. Repetition in the music and we’re gonna lose it. Damn right.
Did someone say literal? Well, when it comes to extraction music, you can’t get much more literal than sound made from the act of excavation itself. Part archaeological curiosity, part enigmatic tape music construction extraordinaire, Giovanni Lami’s Bias is the result of putting sounds onto tape, burying them in various places around Austria, Greece and Italy, then digging them up again some time later to see how these periods of internment have affected the original recordings. A lovely idea, full of metaphorical resonances to keep my literalism at bay, but the real joy of Bias is hearing the degraded media grumbling out through our speakers, as if Lami is feeding conveyor belts of loamy gunge through giant tape heads, a mad professor urging the sausage machine of damp grit and mud to keep burping forth clods of sticky debris. The result is something akin to the warped degradation of Grisha Shakhnes or C Reider, with mournful tones and hapless fragments straining to be heard over the thick broth of haze. However, the difference between Bias and these other artists, I think, is that whereas with Shakhnes and Reider (William Basinski is another example), it’s all about the tape, here it’s all about the earth, as if the land itself were crying out to us across an almost insurmountable abyss, the scuzz and burr, the gnarly squelches, the drop-outs and dull thumps, all forming constituent parts of some unknowable soil language. Think of Bias as akin to Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tapes, in which the land absorbs a psychic imprint of the trauma and injustice wreaked upon and around it across thousands of years, then plays it back as a kind of background radiation, its continuing, unintelligible laments a document of eternal pain and sorrow.