Various Artists - Zelphabet vol J [Zelphabet - 2010]Zelphabet is releasing an album for each letter of the alphabet, compiling heavily experimental works by artists whose names begin with the letter specific to the volume. Here we are at volume "J". As a whole, this is a slow paced disk of sparsely arrhythmic, chunky static textures that remain satisfyingly full, fairly unaggressive and mostly within the realm of avant garde sound sculpture rather than violent, full on "harsh noise".
First is John Duncan's "Storm - Tel Aviv Marina", which is composed of beautiful field recordings taken from the titular marina. A quiet, minimal, constant piece that becomes 'stormier' as it goes, and conveys some kind of melancholic feeling through unknown means. The water laps against. Metal objects rattle and chatter in the wind, which howls gently. The listener feels all of the emotions of being there. It's wonderful.
John Wiese's "Dramatic Accessories" is a fairly sparse improvised, banging-on-pots-and-pans style clattering noise piece that goes on for 12 minutes. It reminds me of the earlier disks in the Merzbox but has more textural depth and precise recording. It can be hard to listen on headphones because of incessant hard panning. It sounds like he probably made 3 separate recordings and panned left, right and center respectively. There's some nice meaty harsh noise in the middle before the piece inexplicably thins out in the second half and loses a lot of momentum, though momentum is perhaps not the point of something like this. In any case, it starts to drag for me and I feel like this is an improv he should have only used part of. There is a sound near the end, however, that I would guess is some kind of stringed instrument intentionally recorded at overload levels which redeems some of the boredom and excess silence.
Jone Rose's "Illegal Settlement Fence" sounds like it could be one layer of an Organum track. I don't hear any real direction to the piece, but the sounds are nice. Apparently, he likes to gather recordings of fences, and this track was made out of a particular, politically significant fence in Palestine. Thus, it gets a few points for ritual intent. One could certainly complain reasonably that this track sounds like a recording someone should construct a piece out of, not like a finished piece itself - these sounds could be shaped into a hypnotic, wonderful drone (as similar sounds often are in the work of Organum), but Rose leaves big gaps of silence between the sounds and instead leaves you with a discontinuous listening experience that sounds like 20 or so excerpts of longform, immersive ambient pieces. For me, the sounds are so harmonically rich and beautiful that they keep me mesmerized for the 8 minute running time.
Joseph Hammer's piece, "Could Have", is nearly 15 minutes long. A mangled tape loop featuring a short passage of classical music begins the piece and provides welcome contrast to the previous three pieces, which have absolutely nothing in the way of smooth, pleasant timbres. 4 minutes later, the tape loop is still all that's playing, and the listener begins to suspect it comprises the whole piece. It does, and though it soons reveals itself to be a loop with several tracks (probably 8), it's not enough to keep my attention for 10 minutes, let alone 15. "Could Have" is the weak point of the album. For me, at least, the sound of the lone tape loop repeating as its tracks are added and subtracted has become an avant garde cliche. Not to mention, compared with the work of artists such as P16.D4, Skinny Puppy, The Hafler Trio and Nurse With Wound, this is rudimentary tape manipulation.
Justice Yeldham's raucous, free-wheeling "Shanghai" seems out of place on this disk. It's easily the loudest, most lively track here, and as it begins, I find myself wishing it came sooner, and that the rest of the disk was more like it. It has a playfulness completely absent from the rest of the album. It's not incredibly hard to take, and has moments of calm interspersed throughout, but is uniformly distorted and could be called lo-fi "harsh noise" augmented by whiny 'chipmunk' pitch change effects that lend the song an alien sound. It sounds like a microphone run through effects pedals, for the most part. Microphone noise often has a lot of energy in the performances, and this is no exception. Though the sound palette could have diversified a lot more during the 15 minute track length than it does, he gets a lot of good sounds out of a fixed sounding set of cheap effects. A good track that makes me want to look into Justice Yeldham.
This is very inaccessible, slow moving music. If you need structure and progression in music, you will likely be unable to enjoy a single pieces on this disk, but if you simply love sound and texture, this album could be for you. If you're already a fan of any of these artists, you know what you're getting into. Other than "Could Have" (which at 15 minutes drags the album down greatly), each track offers an interesting and challenging listening experience. Though each piece is very long, the diversity created by putting 5 different artists on one disk makes this a more immediately listenable album than an entire album by any of these artists would be. I'm certainly a fan of what Zelphabet is trying to do with these compilations, though I think other volumes are likely better than this one. Josh Landry