AREA C: Charmed Birds vs. Sorcery
Students of Decay

AREA C: The Planetarium Project

The AREA C material that Eric Carlson has been issuing under the name since 2002 unfolds with a careful deliberation that strikes an admirable balance between improvisatory exploration and an intuitive feel for when to move on to the next idea. The Providence, Rhode Island-based composer, media artist, and architect uses electric guitar as his core sound-generator but augments it with samples, tapes, electronics, and radio transmissions in such a way that semi-improvised settings of immense sonic scope and texture result (it's tempting to draw a parallel between his architectural endeavours and his compositions, as the latter typically assert themselves with a structural coherence that's sometimes wanting in improvisatory material that can lapse into formlessness). While he's issued a number of three-inch releases and contributed to compilations, his two latest AREA C releases arguably present his strongest artistic statements to date. They're also markedly different in character: his fourth studio album, Charmed Birds Against Sorcery, is an hour-long solo affair while the second, The Planetarium Project, is a double-CD collection of collaborations with Black Forest / Black Sea, Eyes Like Saucers, and Mudboy recorded live at Providence's Cormack Planetarium as part of 2007's alt-SPACE series.

On Charmed Birds Against Sorcery (the album title taken from a passage in Claudius Aelian's “On the Characteristics of Animals,” which that states that doves can ward off sorcery by inserting bay-tree shoots into their nests), Carlson never stays in one place for long. The material shape-shifts constantly, mutating unpredictably but with manifest direction and purpose through multiple episodes in a given piece. As a result, each one becomes a gateway into a new world that Carlson confidently navigates for the mesmerized listener. The album's eight settings seemingly cover the full spectrum of the guitar's possibilities: communicating an alien message of some undetermined form, patterns of high-pitched needles babble in a Morse code-like manner during “Of Set Purpose, No Arrangement,” for example, while a rippling mass of guitar splinters, wavering flute tones, and picked scabs of noise meld into a multilayered whole in “Fact, Fancy, Legend.” Adding a brief kosmische musik character to the album, droning tendrils of guitar stretch across a bed of vinyl crackle and mellotron in “Meeting Mid-Air,” while “Sleeping Birds” finds guitar sounds forming a dense paradisiacal backing for deceased poet Robert Greeley's heavily-treated voice (an excerpt from “Clemente's Images” read on June 11, 2000). Towering over the album's six-minute settings is the twenty-two-minute title piece, a languorous dreamscape where sighing lines swoon in seeming bliss as industrial stabs puncture the mass in a slow-motion, almost lockstep formation. While Carlson allows the music a generous amount of time to induce its hypnotic effect, he also avoids stasis by subtly modulating the intensity level during the piece. In the second half, multiple layers of guitars come together as the mass builds rapturously before abruptly vanishing. In “Composition Journal,” a locked groove pulsates with a melancholy weave of ripples and shadings punctuated by blunt drum machine stabs until a mid-song breakdown brings a textural swarm of guitars to the fore; the manner by which Carlson modulates the transitions throughout the track's six minutes evidences a masterful degree of control, something that remains in full display throughout the recording's sixty minutes.

I'll confess that I'm drawn to The Planetarium Project even more, despite the fact that its quartet of sprawling thirty-minute settings naturally lacks a bit of the taut and compact character of the solo collection. Nevertheless, listening to Carlson working through these long-form explorations in concert with the other artists is a captivating experience. In these live performances, Carlson and company create largely improvisational pieces based on visual scores corresponding to the Cormack Planetarium display (when projected light strikes the millions of tiny perforations dotting the dome's surface, a blurred effect is created that simulates the experience of viewing the night sky). For a collection that often resembles a resplendent fusion of No Pussyfooting and kosmische musik, the musicians recorded the electroacoustic settings in almost total darkness, with Carlson utilizing guitar, sampler, electronics, tapes, and drum machine and the others armed with their own idiosyncratic gear.

“The Basin of the Heavens,” the collaboration with Mudboy (Raphael Lyon), opens with Lyon's modified harmonium adding a psychedelic dimension to a slowly curdling drone before Carlson's bleeding guitar roar moves to the forefront. The material evolves through numerous phases, including a pulsating krautrock episode that exhumes dusty memories of Popol Vuh and Amon Düül until a rapid panning treatment sends the material careening from one channel to the other, and then comes full circle with the harmonium guiding the piece to a becalmed close. Fans of ‘70s German “space rock” will be especially charmed by this first of the four collaborations. “Messier Object 45,” one of two AREA C-Black Forest / Black Sea works, pairs Carlson with Jeffrey Alexander (electronics, thumb piano, home-made electronics) in a travelogue that touches down in multiple zones. After setting sail with a spacey dronescape filled with alien tones whistling across the upper skies, it shifts the focus to Carlson whose awakening guitar builds into an immense wave. The slow-burning whole gradually turns clangorous and shuddering until a momentary breakdown occurs halfway through, clearing the way for screeching noise stabs to erupt during the piece's final third. Cellist Miriam Goldberg joins Alexander and Carlson for “Cassiopia,” which often acts as a plodding and funereal set-piece for her cello sawing and the guitarist's wrenching lines; after morphing into a blurry, droning haze, the piece grows progressively more harrowing and nightmarish during its closing third before ending with Alexander's shortwave radio squeals and brooding guitar and cello playing.

The final collaboration, “Lesser Dog, Greater Still,” pairs Carlson with Eyes Like Saucers (Jeffrey Knoch on harmonium, electronics, and shortwave radio) in an epic soundscape that finds the guitarist, egged on by Knoch's trippy harmonium playing, breathing fire during the opening half. A downtempo drum machine groove subsequently plunges the piece into a deep, psychedelic zone until the piece eventually achieves some semblance of peace in a semi-somber dénouement. All told, The Planetarium Project is not only a major addition to the AREA C discography but also a fabulous collection of explorative soundscaping that any listener with a jones for guitar-based experimentalism would be well advised to check out. There's no downside here, though one does wonder what Carlson could possibly do to follow it up.

September 2009