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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Fergus Kelly - Local Knowledge [Unfathomless - 2017]

This review comes as something of a relief and change of pace as for the first time in a while I have approached the release with no prior knowledge of either the artist or the label. Fergus Kelly's "Local Knowledge" was released on CD by Unfathomless and was their 44th release at the time in September 2017.

A small bit of research uncovered that Unfathomless is a "thematic ltd CD series focusing primarily on phonographies reflecting the spirit of a specific place crowded with memories, its aura & resonances and our intimate interaction with it" - the label is based in Brussels, Belgium and is a 'sister label' to Mystery Sea, both are run by Belgian artist Daniel Crokaert (who receives credit here on this release as having provided the cover design and 'treatment' to Fergus Kelly's photography used in the album artwork). Fergus Kelly is based in Dublin and the albums liner notes detail that the location of the recording was the "4km stretch of North Dublin's Royal Canal, between Ashtown and Phibsborough".

The album was produced in a limited run of 200 hand-numbered copies of the CD, all with an additional art card between the folded insert cover inside a clear vinyl sleeve - the 300gr Matt Offset paper that was used really adds a touch of professional quality to the release that many DIY CD labels can sometimes lack (be it an aesthetic or ethical choice or an economic necessity). The artworks rich imagery really pulls you in - I'm led to believe that the album is largely made up of most-likely pristine and 'raw' field recordings of an area that delivers a sense of the place over an elongated period of 'keeping an ear out' for those essential soundscapes that render it perfectly in the listeners mind. 2018 was a year that saw me develop a renewed interest and appreciation for field recording and so even before delving into this album I was feeling quite hopeful.

The album is made up of nine eponymous tracks, or 'parts', that make up the whole 'Local Knowledge'. Only moments into part one I begin to suspect that the 'raw' aspect I had pre-envisioned might be blown out of the water - as ebbing swells of seemingly synthetic drones push in and out of traffic, rushing winds and the clatter of pedestrians. Some jarring beeping noises coalesce with these to really hammer home the point that while this is largely a work made up of field recording - it is heavily orchestrated and manipulated in such a way that it delivers a new sense of place - a sense we could never arrive at with a simple, raw field recording of a given location. All of a sudden a rail worker tells us over a tannoy that there'll be no service due to engineering works and we're grounded, the amorphous swelling and beeping slips out of view and we're pushed right into the second part.

The second part opens on some luscious, delicate rainfall and sweeping winds. As natural as they begin, soon enough they are stopping and starting, a tangling of birdsong weaves around the sounds - there is something archetypally pastiche about the transitions from sound to sound, space to space - the cuts are almost purposefully jarring as though they were stitched together in such a way that the stitcher wanted you to see the stitches. But here and there the jarring quality gives way to a wave-like one that feels utterly serene. Deep bellowing bell-like sounds replace the rainfall, while the birdsong continues to circle, that makes the listener feel like they're circling a large drain while some bemused gulls watch on from the distant cusp. A clanking metallic buoy acts as a monotonous percussion as the sounds begin to loop in such a way that pushes them out of their 'place' and into a more musical context. As quickly as the loop is built up it is abruptly halted and replaced with more rainfall and that sense of jarring pastiche returns. It's here at the five and a half minute mark that the track really begins to take on a sense of journeying and it's this sense of journeying that really allows the listener to 'soak up' not only the intricate textural sounds of the environment but the emotional aura that the artist has embedded into the composition. Do these auras serve to aide the field recordings or is it the other way around? It's initially quite hard to tell. The second part gets very quiet and sullen before inconspicuously passing on into the third.

The third opens with a similar bellowing, circling drone that might be synthetic - it might be bells, it might be bowls, it could be something else, it's hard to place - it's both surreal and ethereal and it's accompanied by more birdsong and a murky bubbling. While the sounds almost come off as typically 'brooding' and 'foreboding', these connotations tend to slip away the more you focus on individual details over the overall atmosphere that might only be 'implied' by these sounds. The transitions here in this part are much slower and methodical but serve the same purpose as pastiche, only here the slowness gives us a sense of organic flow and change that I feel works really well. Four minutes in we hear a series of cars pass us by as some chiming synthetic notes and slow-motion gulps tickle our ears - there is a really luscious dream-like quality to the way they all converge.

Into the fourth part, we are confronted with some very otherworldly noises - surging undulations that take the fore while the voices of children and the gusty movements of wind make up an outer stratosphere of sound. What's interesting here is that while I know the album was recorded and produced in Dublin, the sounds here really evoke a sense of early Play Station game scores, particularly the odious scores of games like Blood Omen, Soul Reaver and Abe's Odyssey - this was an odd comparison to strike me and I really wasn't expecting it. With that said, I absolutely loved the soundtracks of those games and so it can only be a good one to make, but it does raise the question of whether this album is 'working' as a means of evoking the sense of place it's meaning to or if it is better served to evoke a sense of a new place entirely, one entirely imaginary.

The fifth part opens up quietly, some plane-soaring overarches some murky bubbling. The bubbling morphs into slow spattered fireworks - at first erratic, they develop a regularity. All of a sudden the heavy whir of helicopter blades merges with the fireworks - something about the combination of these two sounds feels really surreal to me. It feels like this is a soundscape taken directly out of a dream somebody has had and it's a dream I would like to be having - there is something so attractively ambivalent about it. The sparsity of sounds here is delivered perfectly, a very real sense of place is achieved, albeit one which evokes dream-like sensations.

The sixth part opens with a scurrying, rustling noise that is quickly followed by a wind-like sound and an electronic whirring drone. It feels as though we're leaves in the gutter and we're about to ascend into the aerial rotating brushes of the imminent street-cleaning vehicle. Whining tones, bleeps and bloops, serve to emphasise the feeling of ominous machinery hovering overhead. Perhaps we have been swept up and we are now in some kind of mechanical, computerised hell within the bowels of the vehicle? It's an interesting noise-laden departure from the previous parts, but it's over very quickly, closing before hitting the four-minute mark, the listener is left with no sense of place but a definitive bookend has at least been applied to the sense of place already developed in the fifth.

Opening the seventh part, ominous whirring tones with a little less emphasis on the 'noise' side of things take us up - it appears we're returning where we left off - I can't help but wonder what difference it could have made to have no fade in and out between the sixth part and this. The electronic whirring begins to take on a vocal quality at one stage which is nice - overall it continues to fall short of delivering a sense of place though - that is until we begin to hear some candid vocalisations of Dublin, one woman asks "What the fuck are you listening to?" - now the ominous whirring has fully enshrouded these voices in such a way that we can't help but feel a sense of place. The slow spattering of fireworks returns - women sing along in the distance, a car drives past - we have returned out of a thick soup of delirium and imagination to a real and somewhat-disturbing world.

Part eight opens on a gentle metallic whirring, like a fork being delicately scraped along the inside of a large metal tank. Followed are precise and careful gongs of some kind of bell instrument - or is it, in fact, a piece of street furniture or dilapidated building acting as such? It would be silly to presume anything here. The ambiguity is ideal as the track progresses - making the sounds blend and blur with the quiet birdsong and the passing traffic. With almost no inclination we have then slipped into the final, ninth part. Bell-like sounds have been replaced with even more ambiguous electronic whirring drones. As these sounds continue I can't help but feel that these two final parts to the album were for me the least engaging, I found my attention faltering a lot as though I were waiting for it to really 'anchor' me and yet this never came about - although there was a point around mid-way in the final part where it did seem to take on a more interesting tack. Overly percussive samples (and by samples I, of course, mean 'cuts' of field recording) combined with ethereal high-pitched warbling synth notes - the looping rhythm begins to echo that of a train, and is then followed by the actual sounds of one - a perfectly hypnagogic aura enshrouds the listener in these closing moments.

Overall I thought this album was a really good listen - having never been to Dublin I feel like I've learnt something about the place for having listened to this, perhaps not what the city does in fact 'sound like' but perhaps something even more authentic and important than that - what sounds and musical ideas the city inspires as well as which emotional responses you might have to experience it as a place. Since the CD came in an edition of 200 I think it's very possible the label still has copies - you can find further information about all that at both their website and their Bandcamp - I would recommend picking up this album for sure! This album has undoubtedly made me a lot more curious about the other releases present in the Unfathomless catalogue as well.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

James Shearman
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