Matthew Collings: Silence Is A Rhythm Too
Graveyard Tapes: White Rooms
White Rooms is a thoroughly credible follow-up to Graveyard Tapes' debut collection Our Sound Is Our Wound that sees Edinburgh-based duo Euan McMeeken (glacis, The Kays Lavelle) and Matthew Collings (Splintered Instruments, Sketches For Albinos) once again pooling their considerable talents for an arresting set of experimental pop songs. They're not alone, however: William Ryan Fritch (Vieo Abiungo, Death Blues) contributes a string arrangement to the opening song, “Flicker,” Brady Swan plays drums on “Exit Ghosts,” and Ben Chatwin—better known in these parts as Talvihorros—is credited with co-writing five of the album's nine tracks. The guests' collective presence in no way compromises the defining character of Graveyard Tapes' sound, however, which, like last time, grounds itself in McMeeken's distinctive vocal delivery and Collings' instrumental wizardry.
The album opens on an epic note with the wide-screen “Flicker,” which rises ecstatically in its chorus (“You raise me up…) when McMeeken's pealing voice is buoyed by pounding drums and Fritch's strings. That song's wall-of-sound production style remains in place for much of the album, with the vocals less out front than evenly positioned within the mix's dense instrumental sprawl. There's a palpable sense of urgency, even desperation in the music that's reinforced by the songs' lyrical content. One such as “Sometimes the Sun Doesn't Want to be Photographed,” for instance, rushes forward with single-minded intensity, even if its rapid pace is countered by slower vocal and piano melodies, while the anguished vocals in “Could You Really Kill?” are backed by an abrasive instrumental design that's equally blistered and fractured.
Lyrically, the songs range between despair and hope in confronting the challenges of living in a world fraught with violence, loneliness, and suffering. It's a struggle captured evocatively—even if some of its words call to mind Josh Groban—in “Flicker” and the hope that persists in the face of destruction: “You raise me up / In the dark / Though the walls / Are crumbling.” Despite the bleak portrait presented in the ballad-styled “The Secret Voices of People” (“The living don't arrive / The dead they do not leave / All the moments are gone”) and the 9/11 associations within “Ruins” (“It's all these ruins / Falling from the sky above”), resurrection remains a possibility, as evidenced by “Exit Ghosts,” whose lyrics (“They will raise us up…”) pick up where “Flicker” leaves off.
As a singer, McMeeken's tremulous delivery at times recalls Thom Yorke's (see “Exit Ghosts” and “Could You Really Kill?” as examples), and it wouldn't be stretching things too far in noting similarities between Graveyard Tapes and the respective styles of Radiohead and Atlas Sound. Vocals aside, piano, guitar, electronics, and drums are the dominant sounds, though embellishments of varying kinds also appear. As the bluesy romp “Death Rattle” reveals, the duo may flirt with a genre style, but the song always ends up branded with Graveyard Tapes' idiosyncratic sensibility. Incidentally, vinyl is arguably the best choice of format for the release, given that the forty-six-minute album comes with downloads of a bonus instrumental (“Dulcitone Grasses”) and four-song EP, The Price of Ambition.
Listening to Collings' solo release Silence Is A Rhythm Too (whose title stems from a line in a 1980s song by The Slits called “In The Beginning There Was Rhythm”), the Scotland-based composer's sequel to his debut outing Splintered Instruments, gives the listener a clearer sense of what he contributes to Graveyard Tapes' sound. Calling him a composer isn't maybe the best label; if anything, electro-acoustic soundsculptor is better, given how much the six settings suggest someone shaping material as a sculptor might, removing certain parts and adding others in order to gradually coax a particular shape into being. It all adds up to a heady, forty-four-minute mix of experimental bits and neo-classical fragments.
His music isn't sui generis—traces of Reichian minimalism are audible, for example—yet is nevertheless distinctly Collings. He builds each setting using blocks of sound until maximum density is reached, and, like the music on White Rooms, the material often assumes a broken and fractured character, as if it's being played through some malfunctioning amplifier. That introduces an alien quality into Collings' music that's effectively offset by the acoustic sounds of violinist Paul Evans (on “Stills” and “Cicero”), clarinet / bass clarinet player Pete Furniss (“Stills”), French Horn player Matt Giannotti (“Stills”), and the McFalls Chamber Ensemble's strings on two pieces. In places, the music plods, wheezes, and convulses, even at times heaves to and fro like some massive tanker, yet while there's bluster, there's delicacy, too, as shown in the opening section of “Cicero” when Evans' fluttering plucks are joined by little more than sparse piano accents.It's worth noting that Collings was pre-occupied creatively by an idea of Mark Rothko's during the album's creation, specifically his statement that romance, tragedy, and death are the only things worth making art about, a comment that in turn prompted Collings to center his project upon an antithesis between life and death that's symbolized in the album material by noise and silence. But, that inspiration aside, one is more tempted to draw a parallel between Rothko's immersive abstract works and Collings' experimental music. Just as there are absorptive colour fields in the artist's paintings, so too are there broad swaths of sound in the musician's pieces.