Phil Maguire: Brak (Soft Error cassette and download)
When duration is often such a key aspect of experimental musicking, it’s easy to forget the attraction of brevity. But time limits can sharpen the focus of both artist and listener – done right, you end up with a no-messing synergy in which everyone’s a winner. Phil Maguire’s ‘Brak’ understands the benefits of such shrinkage. Comprising two five-minute chunks of muted churn and grind, mixing cassette field recordings with sine tones and electronics, it doesn’t hang about. Nevertheless it rewards attention.
Initial exposure to its bite-sized charms suggest ‘Brak’ is a extends the investigation of clapped out formats that characterized ‘Empty Damage’, Maguire’s pared-back exploration of a broken Walkman and tape loops. But if Maguire’s instincts there tended towards the curatorial, providing a space for an emergent sound world to speak for itself, ‘Brak’ edges toward the compositional. In both pieces, smears of grey noise cut in and out, providing broad washes of texture into which Maguire weaves gassy bursts of low-end effluence and needling static blotches.
Indeed, despite the lack of space on the horizontal axis, Maguire does a sterling job of stacking things vertically, so that, for once, compression beats expansion. There’s a particularly affecting stretch towards the end of Part 2, where the ghost of a kick drum pokes through the haze before a series of tactile swipes brings things to a close. The result is akin to a sentient moss – a shapeless, spongy entity pulsing with gloomy life.
I might be wrong, but I think ‘Working Title’. which matches Phil Maguire’s electronic swoops and fizzes with James L. Malone’s shapeshifting electric guitar squeals, is Maguire’s first collaborative outing (via recorded media, at least – I know he’s explored the duo format in live excursions for some time). It’s a fine debut if so, bolshy and mischievous in places, with a kinetic dynamism that’s an interesting contrast to Maguire’s often rather introverted solo releases.
On this session guitarist Malone seems to be veering towards the syncopated clatter of ‘Hit Me’, his duo recording with Daniel Kordik, rather than the coat-hanger jangles of his Onin duo, in which he pairs up with saxophonist Joe Wright (their debut album ‘Errery’ was released on Maguire’s Verz imprint, coincidentally). I say ‘seems’ because I can’t really make out who’s doing what on this album, mainly because Malone’s avowedly non-idiomatic playing sits at a substantial remove from conventional expectations of what the guitar should be. As skilled in sidestepping improvisational orthodoxy as he is in kicking standard rockist gestures into the long grass, his playing is moody and enigmatic in the best possible way. It’s an approach that thrives on collaboration, the acousmatic shilly-shallies perfectly suited to both twin-player frolics – see those releases I name-dropped above for examples – and, I would expect, larger groupings.
You get a pretty good idea of how ‘Working Title’ will pan out from the get-go. Exhalations of fibrous hiss usher in ultrasonic tooth drill whines, while bassy generator hums give us a low-end cuddle. Rubbery wah-wah squeals yodel across sandpaper prickles as a smokestack puff adds nostalgic textures.
Malone’s non-guitar and Maguire’s computer continue to spew out skeins of wriggling electro-acoustic sound from then on. Across three tracks, their particulate scrapes and impatient whimpers enact a biomechanical interaction that seems independent of any overarching consciousness. It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course – we know Maguire and Malone are onsite making these sounds, but it’s all too easy to edit out the authorial presences and tumble into the (apparently) self-organizing hubbub, as if we’d plunged an endoscopy camera into a teardrop to take a gander at the microbial frenzy kicking off within.
And, while the 16 minutes of ‘Working Title 3’ give the sounds plenty of space to jostle and evolve, I’ve got a soft spot for the dissonant terseness of its immediate predecessor, whose grey noise jags, tinfoil jitters and chugging swoops evoke a hellish orchestra of busted cathode ray TVs, every one tuned to exactly the wrong frequency. Lovely.