Marginal Frequency’s debut release, House of Dust, performed by the duo of Steve Flato and Jeff Williams – collectively known as Starvation Time – ended up being one of my favourite tapes of last year, even though, for various reasons too boring to go into, I didn’t get to listen to it until a couple of months ago. Flato and Williams did something to invigorate the faded template of rock music that I hadn’t heard for years, putting the boot in to that worn-out carcass with enough spleen and rancour to reanimate it for a few short minutes. Since then, Alan Jones’ tape-only label (digitals become available only when the cassettes are just about sold out) has released product that is both idiosyncratic and judicious. Jacob Wick’s Twice Love was an engrossing missive from free improvisation’s front line, while Erik Carlson’s Piece for 12 Violins Parts 1+2 was an equally compelling piece of modern composition, dense and dissonant, yet as beautiful as the slow progress of the sun across a hillside.
This pair of recent releases maintain the high quality. Clara de Asís and Bruno Duplant’s L’inertie offers up two tracks of gorgeous, enveloping drone, as warm and disorienting as the medicated fug of illness. I first encountered de Asís in her excellent solo performance of d’incise’s Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) – available from the Insub Bandcamp as a free download – but here she plays in unison with Duplant, first on guitar and then organ, their long, gradually shifting tones achieving a thick viscosity that’s almost tangible. Duplant will be no stranger to anyone reading this, and suffice to say he acquits himself with customary efficiency here, too. La Paresse is the guitar track, the duo pushing their instruments into long, almost electronic sounding passages of sustain, weaving a lovely low-end throb and mechanical whirr into the esturine flow. It’s a languid slow-burning hit, although dynamic enough to mark out the emergence and slow fade of different tonal clusters, and the gloopy vortex is attractive enough to make you want to dive right in. La Lentueur doesn’t do anything markedly different, which is a relief, although the replacement of guitar with organ is, counterintuitively, less enshrouding. The pace is slower, glacial rather than riverine, each tonal shift a collapse into the next stage rather than slick transition. Particularly affecting is a low-end growl, a kind of flanged, hung chord running throughout, that gets me riffing on Keith Emerson chucking his L100 Hammond Organ in a slo-mo noise shuffle around the back room of a boozer in the King’s Road. Nice.
L’inertie is good, but it’s Catriel Nievas and Joe Wheeler’s balance that’s the main attraction. The duo nail it, basically, using field recordings and minimal guitar to present austere, enigmatic and often quite baffling compositions. There’s a little overlap in approach with artists like Graham Lambkin or Vanessa Rossetto, I guess, but there’s something about the way in which the material is handled here that is plenty original. Field recordings are nothing new, true, and even the studied nonchalance the duo brings to the explanations of their chosen material (‘raw recordings of unfinished travels’ – Nievas; ‘to capture really whatever was in front of me at the right time’ – Wheeler) has a familiar ring. Yet they succeed in bringing something of the texture of lived, everyday experience into their recordings, the banality and magic of living in the world, that gives these pieces a kind of … truth, really, although one that’s abstract and generated from their dreamy, fuzzy textures rather than literal fidelity to any locations. These tracks have a foggy, messy quality that is particularly endearing, despite us not knowing whether they’re made up of single recordings or several stitched together – to be honest, clues about what’s going on, where, and with whom are thin on the ground, although there often seems to be distinct shifts in location, occasionally even transforming into a disorientating non-space of hazy, drone-like hiss.
Whether anything has been added to these recordings at the edit stage is also unclear, although there’s sufficient acousmatic mischief going on to keep us guessing. Are those strange whirrs that cut across the hustle and bustle in Lineaa edited in, or are they part of the wider sound-picture, like the clangs of public transport warning buzzers, birdsong and incidental clonks that give this piece an almost picaresque quality? Surely the sawtooth hums at the very start of the record, on 11kvd.d are synths, albeit ones that sound like they’re being played with bricks? Later on, in Guitarra – outside at 9pm, the high whistling that accompanies the titular instrument’s languid strums proves to be cicadas, not synth oscillations as I had originally though, although part-way through, after the cicadas have departed, there does seem to be a sine-like tone mewling through the enigmatic murk. That said, knowing exactly what went on during the composition of balance probably won’t add anything to its strange, almost feverish miasma. It is what it is – like a box of old cassettes you discover in a loft or at car boot sale, it’s the nebulous anonymity that gives balance its weird aura, that sense of lives being lived elsewhere or in the past, who reach out to us across the void for a few brief moments of connection before vanishing.