David Shea - Rituals [Room 40 - 2014]Multi-instrumentalist David Shea used to be an incredibly prolific composer, with a steady stream of more than 20 albums between 1992 and 2006, his work largely released on Sub Rosa. This album "Rituals", released on Room040, is his first in many years.
It is, for lack of a better term, 'modern classical', and truly modern in that it's a multi-layered instrumental work performed almost entirely by one man, who layered the tracks on top of each as he went. As I will further discuss, Shea is clearly very interested in the textures of sounds, as well, and this is certainly a 'deep listening' avant garde recording as much as a classical one, as well as a document of field recording and musique concret. It has an unstructured, improvisatory feel foreign to classical music, and a religious reverence for drone pitches.
Nearly 19 minute opener "Ritual 32" is an intense masterpiece. It begins with an irresistable and inviting brassy syrup of space chords which could be synthesizer, or slowed down organs or horns. Soon, we get a long, strident passage of deeply affecting romantic piano, and it becomes apparent that this is going to be an emotionally upfront recording even as it may be challenging. With a swirl of notes, we hear the dramatic and emotive entrance of a moaning drone vocal, an overtone rich 'ommmm', also performed by Shea himself. it begins to rotate in a loop. after a long while this is replaced by the pale coldness of singing bowls and a clattering of chimes. these vivid acoustic sounds conjure many memories to my head, until eventually thinning and receding to the distance.
The beautiful and diverse (if lengthy) "Ritual 32" does little to prepare one for the insane cacophany "Emerald Garden". It is as dissonant and tense as a mid 1900's atonal piece, full of sharp chromatic runs and grating chords that are the equivalent of a sense of dread in the gut. It's a surreal, brightly abrasive effect, and strange harmonies can be heard beneath the din. It has the bizarre dreamlike apocalyptic tone sometimes reached by Messaien or Alban Berg. Loops of morphing static seem perfectly at home in music such as this. Over the course of 8 minutes, the soundscape becomes less dense and harsh, settling into an eerie bed of insectoid chittering and whistling that is so completely alien and unfamiliar that it's not clear where the origin of the sound is animal or machine.
The spiritual tone of the album is more apparent with "Wandering in the Dandenongs", containing the sounds of birds, bugs and chimes, timeless and infinitely complex timbres which will never fail to relax me. I could listen to these sounds for the entire 17 minute running time of the song, but of course Shea moves on after a couple of minutes. Oddly tuned gamelan flutes spiral in 3 note patterns arranged into infinite loops. A deep, earth drum sounds periodically beneath everything. There is a tribal ambient feel in which it is not clear what was recorded by Shea and what was sampled, something I am sure is intentional. In this way we unite the primitive and the modern, past and present. The singing bowls return again, understated at first. This is a sparser track, patient or sluggish, as if played in a humid place.
"Fragments of Hafiz" is a bassy, processed electronic smear that extends vaguely with a sort of metallic ugliness, soon joined by a melodious Gregorian sounding voice (Shahin Shaiaef, one of the few guests) and an emotive, tension filled piano similar to the one in the first piece. A rattling, controlled cymbal roll builds and sustains more energy until the inevitable dissipation as the song ends at the 5 minute mark.
The Scanner collaboration brings many wonderful new elements into play, such as glimmering percolations of high frequency synthesizer like blinking lights on the displays of machines, and of course the crackling, emotion stricken voices Scanner is known for, illegally pirated from the phone conversations of the public. Thick, intensely beating intervals of shrill treble pitches vibrate and throb about. Travelling the radio waves, we exist in abstract space and move throughout the collective memory of society. The ominous tolling of a bell closing the song. I'm a longtime fan of Scanner's music, have appreciated the classical direction taken by his recent work, and so am very glad to hear this.
The closer is "Green Dragon Inn", a sketch for wailing strings, horns and pianos, a red and cloudy vision of painful memories from across time. The introduction of a slow but insistent tabla rhythm turns it into a march or dirge, increasing after 6 minutes to a loping speed. Field recordings of thunderous tribal drums and shrieking chants are engaged in clever looping patterns beneath Shea's own sounds. A polyrhythmic rock beat from the drumset begins to highlight the accents, and a huge, electric fuzz tone overtakes all else. Each move is colorful and unexpected. The white hot brightness and distant hugeness of the sound mass at the end of the track is impressive.
This is a wonderful and difficult to place album. These are fiercely visionary soundscapes that possess a vicious intensity and mind transporting power that cause me to think twice before calling them 'ambient'. I've heard a couple thing in my life that I could compare to this music, but all among my favorites, and singularly unique in their own right, groups like Lightwave, Coil, Tangerine Dream, Current 93, or John Zorn when he was in the mood for pagan ritual experiments. I highly recommend this album, it's both cerebral and naturally freeflowing.Roger Batty