The modular synth ain’t exactly a USP in the experimental music world these days, but there are still some delights to be discovered among all those patch wranglers out there. The Australian born, Swedish resident John Chantler is one such example, whose Still Light, Outside thrusts throbbing church organ drones up against grainy blasts of noise and skeins of gloop. Londoner John Macedo is pretty good too, carving out charred lumps of sound that pitch his synth patches against the humming growls of electroacoustic kit (speaker cones, mics, radios and the like) – check out his collaboration with Phil Julian, Bind, on Hideous Replica. Modular veteran Richard Scott is another essential name to add to that list. Despite his eclectic discography and extensive rollcall of collaborators – he studied improvisation with John Stevens and saxophone with Steve Lacey, and has played with Evan Parker, Twinkle³, Edward Barton, Clive Bell, Olaf Rupp, David Ross and Grutronic – he’s not been on my radar much to date, but this recent release highlights his singular talent perfectly.
Solo Circles is a album of modular synth investigations, released on Sam Weaver’s Cusp Editions label in a gorgeous double vinyl set with lovely fungal artwork by John Powell-Jones. It’s a fine gateway into Scott’s idiosyncratic style, its 16 pieces made up of improvisations complemented by micro-edits to snip them into their final forms. Those post-production tweaks are both sympathetic and subtle, trimming away the superfluous matter that is an inevitable result of plugging in and recording what happens, while retaining the fluidity and instinctive gestures of an improvised session. Even so, Scott displays a lightness of touch across this set that lifts it above the usual modular meanderings. There’s almost a form of Brownian motion at play in pieces like Softgrid, its hectic bloops and clicks dancing around like dust mites in a sunbeam, without ever descending into whacky sugar-rush tedium. Scott’s curving swoops, car horn beeps and pockmarked syncopations seem to be working to some unknown symmetry, like tiny stars dazzling us with their mischievous swerves and jumps, challenging us to figure it all out. Have you got it yet?
I guess Morton Subotnik’s cascading Buchla explorations are one touchpoint here, especially on cuts like The Art of Being Broken, with its continually-morphing acid groove that stays just the right side of ambient house gurn – although I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit to an occasional yearning for a kick drum, Little Fluffy Clouds style, to add a pilled-up oomph to some of its more straight ahead sections. There are nods, too, to early electronic classics like Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody, particularly in Spertions’ parps of viscous drizzle. But there’s a grit here that gives Several Circles a tougher vibe than Subotnik’s reverberating dayglo whirligigs, not to mention all of those other pioneers. Could it be that it’s difficult to carry forward the hippyish optimism that suffuses pieces like Silver Apples of the Moon – in which the potential offered for new forms of musicking seemed to mirror the utopian potential that the civil rights movement, the counterculture, feminism, were poised to unlock – having seen those progressive movements derailed or stalled too many times in the years since? Viewed in this light, the subdued rumble of Surface Music is an ominous warning, its siren-like phasing and eardrum-slicing oscillations acting as regulatory forces, outsourced private security bots patrolling our mind-space to prevent unruly green shoots of hope poking through the cracks in the concrete.
Thankfully, other tracks signpost more cheerful territory. Indubiru’s nursery rhyme click clack has a Devil-may-care shimmy that threatens to turn into pure carnivalesque hi-jinks even as a plague of croaky squelch drowns things out, while the manipulated vocal snatches on the early sections of Residues channel some of Duncan Harrison’s boozy chaos. The 11-minute title track, meanwhile, seeps out into a wide expanse of teacup tinkles and jelly-squishes, its overlapping whines breaths of fuzz suggesting an advancing tide of fluey viral sludge. Sniff. I can show you the world in a hankie full of snot. Atishoo.