Mercurial is an adjective that could have been invented for avant-troubadour Anla Courtis, so much so that his massive discography would make a mockery of any attempts to summarise it. In recent years, the records that have given me the most pleasure have been his album of beautifully spare guitar duets with Tetuzi Akiyama, Naranja Songs, the unsettling creep of his solo Microtonal Drifts and the antic clatter of his duet with Alan Moore, Bring Me Some Honest Food. Other records – many other records – are of course, available, including these two recent-ish releases, both of which tickle my fancy somewhat.
Bearing the normalized spelling of Courtis’s forename – Alan, rather than Anla – the deep vibrations of Los Galpones harks back his collaborations with Lee Stokoe’s Culver a few years back. One of those – the appropriately named Culver/Courtis – was the record that brought both these artists to my attention, and I can’t help but glom a nostalgic buzz as the doomy stomp of the opening track, Hombrear, gets going. If it feels like we’re edging a little into the Courtis comfort zone, a clonking, off-centre percussion and oily metallic droneslick – combining sustained scrape and bowed whine – keeps things uneasy. After 20 minutes the bass rumble is lovely and enveloping, even as the massed high-end squeals writhe like a nest of vipers in the roof.
Estiba is its evil twin, equal in length and built on a boiling feedback drone and metronomic one-chord strum that would be rejected by the Ramones for being too simplistic. About halfway through, a second, out-of-phase guitar track appears, creating a clanging tapestry rather like Rhys Chatham’s layered loopfests. Accompanying these long pieces are a couple of shorter tracks. Aparcero is plenty fun, erupting in rush of backwards reverb and stony rattles. But Corralon is a delicate delight, with more awkwardly looping strings and strums limping forward like a pockmarked CD of Argentine folksongs glitching through an in-car CD changer.
Courtis’s itinerant nature allows him to wear his South American roots lightly, his work drawing on the cultures of his home turf only when he wants it to. Antofagasta is one of those instances, using field recordings from the Central Andean dry puna, a region of high-altitude grassland stretching across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, as raw material for a set of explorations that draw on the mystery and harshness of the region without resorting to twee folkloric generalities.
Apparently recorded on cassette before being edited and reassembled, it works best when Courtis lets a combination of environment and low-tech recording do the talking, as on Antofagasta IV, when gusty wind blasts distort through the (presumably) crummy mic to form broiling torrents, the resultant wheeze and bluster providing the texture and dynamism for a satisfyingly harsh listen.
Elsewhere, the temptation to carve source material into generic dronescapes is less edifying, but he saves the day with Antofagasta III, the success of which derives from Courtis abandoning any context, to fashion a devotional mantra of chiming metal. Here a chorus of hollow clonks draw mysterious patterns, their kinetic ringing evoking images of some ascetic voyager dragging a wagon full of scrap metal to Holy Mountain. In the background a reverberant throb beats subdued time, a clock with no hands marking a journey through the antiplano without end.