For a record that deploys field recordings to such an extent, this is a surprisingly claustrophobic record. Rather than the blissful pastures of ambient music, the duo of Andie Brown and Sharon Gal create arid, eerie sonic environments that unsettle and bewilder in turn. The duo layers Brown’s meticulously sculpted environmental sounds, bowed cymbal and wine glass whines with Gal’s dissonant electronics and unearthly vocals, the latter of which sees her screeching like hungry pterodactyl one moment then mewling like some mischievous daemon baby the next. The result is a record that shifts our worldview completely, as if we’d been plucked from our time stream by some mysterious hand and dumped onto the tundra of a prehistoric alternate universe.
Ice and Fire sets the tone from the off. Guttural screeches course over the sounds of waves crashing on the shore and clanking metal debris. A sinister, tubercular croak breathes out a grim fugue of despair. Electronic glitches puncture our illusions like a software fault in the matrix, as tumbling metallic clatters herald the collapse of the scaffold.
The plinking melody that ushers in Two can’t dispel the overall air of unease. In fact, it adds to it, the ghostly motif lingering, as unsettling as a psychic echo in a deserted playground. Migraine electrical whines vie with a barely audible monologue, Gal’s voice slurring into a reptilian death rattle, the last moments of a dying behemoth as it lies amid the rubble of the city it has just demolished.
This is the duo’s first release, but the completeness of their uncanny phantasms betrays the depth of their working relationship. Brown has been part of Gal’s large ensembles – the Long Drone and Gals with Guitars (Sophie Cooper was part of this group too) – as well as playing in a bass trio with Gal and Frances Morgan, before the duo came together, playing live several times before recording the sessions for this debut album.
Although Brown’s wine glass manipulation is one of her most recognizable sonic moves, the fact that she doesn’t allow these sounds to dominate prevents it becoming a mere gimmick. It’s an approach refined through her work as These Feathers Have Plumes, in records like 2010’s Corvidae or last year’s Return on Was Ist Das? where the liquid coos of the glasses poke through warm layers of electronics and samples. For her part, as well as her incredible voice techniques, Gal brings her extensive experience, both in performing and composing, to these well-judged pieces. The pair know that, for the most part, they don’t need to comfort us, instead having the confidence to stretch out tracks like After Callas past the 10-minute mark, the bowed cymbals, scraping glass and hysterical simian chatter cranking up the fear factor until a full-blown panic attack is a distinct possibility.
A rare moment of consolation comes, fittingly, with Fata Morgana. Perhaps, having avoided all the usual tropes of ambient music, Gal and Brown feel it’s appropriate to offer up some small balm to ease our ruined brains. It’s a lovely piece, anyway, slow waves of frosty electronic sound (possibly those glasses again, stretched into gorgeous drone undulations) and an angelic, wordless call echoing out. Even when things collapse into a white noise haze about halfway through, the general devotional air remains, the repeating glacial pulsations as melancholy as a lament for a wrecked planet.