Think of the Fender Rhodes and immediately that distinctively funky sound comes to mind – soft, yet vaguely metallic, adding a woozy, narcotic glow to the notes oozing out from its keyboard. Those opening chords of The Doors’ Riders on The Storm, edging over the horizon like dust clouds. The deep, hypnotic motifs of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way.
Well, there’s none of that in these two tapes from Yes Blythe, aka Manchester-based sound artist Callum Steven Higgins. Despite relying on the Rhodes for almost of their sonic sources, Prepared Rhodes and Arieto explore a far more enigmatic and abstract terrain, Higgins carving out gloomy, reduced soundscapes that inch forward into space with a momentum as steady as it is glacial. Listening to them is like watching a camera eye glide across a mysterious surface – I’m tempted to invoke those radio wave readings of Pulsar PSR B1919+21that Peter Savile dug so much, but a better example would be electron microscope images of viruses, with their monochrome high-def detail and unfathomable contours.
Prepared Rhodes, released on David McLean’s Tombed Visions label, collects six tracks put together over a single weekend using only the titular instrument. As the title suggests, Higgins mines as much of the Rhodes’ sonic potential as possible in his explorations, although the results never become dry academic studies. The title of each piece seems to be a play on sound artist Harry Bertoia’s surname – rather arbitrary perhaps, although the laser printer-style clacks of Bertôiæ and metallic rattles of Bertoia (see what I mean about the titles?) have a certain resemblance to the abrasive rustles of and wind chime clangs of the Bertoia’s somambient sculptures. Other pieces are cushioned with more familiar Rhodes sounds – the plangent notes of Bertôia set off various clunks and resonances as they keys are struck, creating a nervy and poignant tapestry. The tape’s centerpiece, however, is Bertioæ, which, over 13 or so minutes, spreads out a cycle of gradually-evolving tremelo’d chords into an eerie mantra. The creeping zonked claustrophobia recalls the nourish melancholy of Portishead’s Roads, but instead of corralling his vibes into a soundtrack for a thousand hungover brunches, Higgins cuts in more scrapes and plinks, their prosaic vigour hollowing out any opportunity for existential comfort.
Arieto uses offcuts from the Prepared Rhodes sessions, augmented by Higgins with field recordings, electronics and other bits and bobs, for two longform pieces The result is a lot more than the sum of its parts, making up for the dilution of Prepared Rhodes’ intensity of focus with an increased emotional pull. TONAL kicks off with a throbbing pulse, full of the kind of ventricular life that would shock even the most jaded gurner into activity were it laid down at 6am in your friendly neighborhood sweatbox. But, instead of kicking off into a regular banger, Higgins layers on gong-like chimes and muffled bass drones, producing an effect rather like listening to William Basinski’s Nocturnes during a heavy Calpol binge. TØNAL opens up this interior landscape, at least at first, with recordings of the hustle and bustle of urban life – a shopping centre, maybe, or a café – underpinning another evolving cluster of notes. As the field recording gradually fades away to leave the sequence continuing to move through its evolving cycle, Higgins’ grey ambience leaves us with almost pastoral feeling of calm.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Prepared Rhodes comes packaged with Unknown, a compilation of sorts comprising three early compositions. Most fun is 16 X1 2039, a self-released feedback and guitar piece. Highlighting a more aggressive side to Higgins’ aesthetic than the considered minimalism of the Yes Blythe catalogue, it drives a sub-zero feedback yowl straight to the hippocampus, before erupting into a tempest of guitar fuzz histrionics, like Makoto Kawabata taking tea with Eliane Radigue. It may relay a little too much on youthful enthusiasm for its steely dynamic, but it’s a thrill nevertheless.