Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim: Clockwork

Steinbrüchel: Opaque (+Re)

Robin Fox and Clayton Thomas: Substation

Lawrence English's ROOM40 label consistently issues bold material, whether it be the two-disc set of sleep-inspired meditations Melatonin, DJ Olive's hour-long ambient work Buoy, or Tujiko Noriko's song-styled Blurred in My Mirror. Three recent offerings uphold the label's reputation for provocative and unique sounds.

Originally issued in an edition of 100 3-inch CDRs on Oren Ambarchi's own Jerker Productions label in 1999, the 19-minute, genre-defying Clockwork presents Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim sculpting unsettling atmosphere from electronics, percussion, and guitar before what must have been a spellbound audience. Though initial sounds of piercing groans and wailing shudders conjure the image of spirits drifting through decaying mansions, the piece quickly assumes a frantic, at times violent character during clockwork episodes of staccato percussive thrum and fractured gamelan before ending with a reverberant gong strike. A compelling counterpart to the more peaceful ambiance of Ambarchi's later Touch outing Grapes From The Estate.

The OPAQUE (+RE) project began when sound artist Ralph Steinbrüchel was invited by Taktlos to produce music for a listening room installation at the 2003 Switzerland festival. Subsequent to the creation of “Opaque,” Steinbrüchel's ten-minute 'audio sculpture' of Rhodes musings and soft electrical noises, five additional versions were generated with each participant limited to three of the original's sound files and disallowed from hearing the original until the remix's completion. As each contributor was also directed in his approach (e.g., Ben Frost asked to work with processed feedback only), it doesn't surprise that the results differ so radically, even if the repetition of sound files ensures some semblance of continuity between them. Contrasting heavily, piano notes literally sprinkle onto the original's soft musings throughout Chris Abrahams' “Falling Into Places” while Taylor Deupree's “Forest/Opaque” resembles a hive of softly chattering insects. Conversely, Frost's “Vedurathugan,” a subtly intensifying drone of tiny starburst pops, and Toshiya Tsunoda's “Untitled,” a metronomic setting of muffled rumbles and electrical tones, sound complementary by comparison.

Though Clayton Thomas (Double bass and 'objects') and Robin Fox (live processing) constitute Substation's sole personnel, the fearless experimentalists conjure an electroacoustic sound as huge as a rampaging army. In Fox's hands, Clayton Thomas becomes multitudes, and the range of generated sounds exhausts any attempt to catalogue it: sure, an occasional, recognizable bass pluck surfaces, but for the most part, the instrument's scrapes and bowings become dense fields of alien babble, volcanic ruptures, spindly ostinati, and meteor showers. Imagine 50 marimbas played with bamboo poles and then quintuple the tempo and you'll have some sense of what the 28-minute “Dust on the Diodes” sounds like. Wisely, the duo makes room for sparse, meditative settings (“Bird Song,” “Between Downpours”), though the album ends harrowingly with the brief coda “Substation (Reprise).” In allowing his playing to be manipulated so dramatically by Fox, Thomas surrenders his soloist persona for that of conduit, resulting in less a document of individual playing than a challenging mass of abstract, machine-generated sound. Like the other two ROOM40 releases, Substation's hardly easy listening but rewarding nonetheless.

January 2006