John Watermann: Calcutta Gas Chamber
Brendan Walls: Outposts
Jonathan Coleclough & Andrew Liles: Torch Songs
Z'ev / David Linton: Untitled
Die Stadt issues no shortage of provocative material and exemplifying that range are five recent releases, though the first one reviewed isn't new. Die Stadt treats the dauntingly-titled Calcutta Gas Chamber to a spectacular vinyl re-release, though sadly its creator John Watermann, who initiated the re-design for the re-issue (it originally was issued in 1993 on the US label ND), tragically passed away in 2002 before being able to admire its final picture presentation. The work is comprised of eight “Shudder Projects” whose titles alone suggest the disturbing sounds contained therein (e.g., “Fitting The Gas Hose,” “The Black Milk Clasp (Clubbing, Tearing, Wrenching, Cutting, Spurting, Boiling, Processing),” “The Shredding Of Human Tissue,” “Walking The Giant Corpse (Most Of The Actors Already In Quick Lime)”). Watermann devised the idea of aurally conveying the horror of a gas chamber following a short visit to Calcutta in 1990, and its realization came about through the electronic manipulation of field recordings Watermann collected at an abandoned electrical power station in Brisbane in 1992. To his credit, Watermann doesn't bludgeon the listener with horrific screams and noise; his approach is subtler though no less disturbing and menacing for being so. Often it's difficult to identify a particular sound, so one is left to imagine what horrendous torture apparatus might be in operation at any given moment. Grinding machine noises and rhythms, shudders, clicks, footsteps, clanking chains, gaseous emissions, distorted voices, and industrial ambiance collectively suggest episodes of merciless dismemberment. (The nearly hour-long work is available in a run of 444 numbered vinyl copies; a CD version was released by Cold Spring in late 2006.)
In his first release since 2002's cassiafistula, Australian composer Brendan Walls spreads Outposts' thirty-nine minutes over two vinyl sides. From the beautifully dark cover artwork to the foreboding, slow-motion drones themselves, Outpost feels like a slow ferry ride by Charon across the river Styx to Hades. Muffled sounds of anguished voices, soft chimes, and crystalline tones hang in the air and an aura of dread hovers over every moment; the second half stays the course but subtly coats the gloomy mass with an industrial sheen. Ominous soundsculpting at its Deathprod-like best, Walls' piece is guaranteed to induce visions of torment all night long.
In contrast to the projects by Walls and Watermann, the Torch Songs collaboration involving Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Liles can't be so immediately pinned down. The duo's double-album set (a bonus CD is included in a special 250-copy edition of the release) is hardly a collection of sentimental songs with singers lamenting lost loves; anyone expecting to hear a rendition of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” or “I'll Be Around” should move right along. Beautifully packaged in a full-colour gatefold sleeve (which displays the lettering for the poem I dreamt I was a river executed by Geoff Sawers during a performance with Coleclough in Geneva, March 2005; the sound of Geoff's brush painting the lettering is even audible on side B), the seventy-minute, eight-song collection presents Liles' reworking (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing further live recordings) of an October 2004 solo live performance by Coleclough. Torch Songs largely documents the sound of a lone figure working onstage through minimal, drone-based settings, with each of the songs exploring a different area in reasonably engrossing manner. One variously encounters string bowing (“Torch Song 2”), field recordings (churning water sounds, bird chirps) and tinkling percussion (“Torch Song 4”), and industrial shimmer and chimes (“Torch Song 6”), most of it heard against softly wavering drones. Ultimately, however, though the material is lavishly presented and the unhurried, intimate style of the onstage activity is appealing in theory, the results are less compelling in practice, or at least on record. Interestingly, his original set at St Peters, Preston (documented on the bonus CD) is actually more engrossing, perhaps for no other reason that that all of the activity is concentrated within the span of a single, uninterrupted setting.
Untitled's four provocations include a pair each from Z'EV and New York-based percussionist David Linton, with each pair a solo track plus remix of the other artist. The hour-long disc gives the first half to Z'EV who opens with a mildly interesting experiment, “Soliloquy #1,” that pairs solo drum accompaniment (recorded in 1990) with cut-ups of a “War in the Gulf” sermon delivered in 1991 by Reverend John MacArthur. Produced from nineteen files provided by Linton, Z'EV's “Not Nil” is a volcanic, twenty-minute howl of industrial shudder, electrical static, and locomotive churn that may be even more horrific than Watermann's Calcutta Gas Chamber. Third in line is “Emerald Portal Excerpt-Part 1” by David Linton (or “The Bicameral Research Sound and Projection System”), twenty-three dronescaping minutes of wind noise, muffled rhythms, and hovering tones. Coming after the first three, David Linton's industrial dub-techno workout “7/11elective-Re:Mix_Z'EV” makes for a jarring though not objectionable fourteen-minute outro. Not surprisingly, what most recommends Untitled is its unpredictability and stylistic range.
Amen, Organum's (David Jackman) middle installment in a proposed trilogy bookended by Sanctus and Omega, is a meditative work in two parts featuring grand piano, Hammond organ, tower bell, gong, and voices. Though Jackman initiated his Organum project in 1983 as an experimental noise outlet, Amen's style and tone are closer in spirit to Arvo Pärt than Einsterzende Neubauten. Despite the Christian church associations established by the instrumentation, the work is largely an organ drone that includes intermittent interjections of deep choral voices and bell strikes. The work accumulates force through repetition, resulting in a ritualistic piece one would expect to hear performed by monks at a remote, mountain-side monastery. Though the piece is generally static, there are subtle changes in intensity and volume but ones executed so subliminally they verge on imperceptible. Conventional notions of time slip away by about the fifteen-minute mark and the listener, now habituated to Amen's carefully calibrated unfolding, relaxes and surrenders to the hypnotic drift of the organ and voices.