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Kevin Tomkins, "Perfectly Flawed"

cover imageKevin Tomkins is probably always going to be known for his tenure in the early (and some would say best) incarnation of Whitehouse, closely followed by his power electronics project Sutcliffe Jugend and the rock-oriented Bodychoke.  This first solo outing from him completely defies expectations, being based only on sounds generated by an autoharp.

 

Between Silences

For such a simple concept, the tracks rarely resemble each other and are based less on the "playing" of the instrument and much more on using every facet of it as a means of generating sound and textures.  Only on "Fifth Flaw" and the closing "Twelfth Flaw" is traditional playing the focus, and even within those there is a fair share of abstract clatters and vibrations, the latter being front-loaded with a dense set of sounds, but closing into pure and beautiful tones.  "Eighth Flaw" takes the strums and instead messes with the tunings, allowing the loosened strings to rattle and create their own sense of percussion.

The percussive applications of the autoharp are spread throughout the album, sometimes being untreated, but consisting of what must be items bounced on the strings, such as the opening "First Flaw," which adds in extremely quiet swelling tones to balance out.  "Ninth Flaw" marries the percussive treatment of the instrument with some Eastern-like string plucks. It is a continuous, collage-like piece that is almost too abstract for its own good, never really locking in to a specific sense of structure or cohesion.  The too short "Fourth Flaw" is perhaps the only track where editing and sequencing seems to be a dominant theme, cutting the sounds of plucks and vibrations into a tightly mixed piece that resembles what would be labeled electronica if it was coming out of a laptop or sampler.

The longer "Sixth Flaw" is perhaps the best piece here, and is nicely sequenced right in the center of the album.  The layers of autoharp are shaped into insect chatters, tribal percussion elements, and an array of disorienting tones that would make the perfect soundtrack to going up a river into a dark jungle.  The following "Seventh Flaw" continues the jungle motif, autoharp being used as a gamelan, and occasionally l ike a fiddle, possibly moving the river metaphor from before out of Africa or Asia and into some of the less settled parts of the American South.

For an album that is focused solely on the use of one instrument, Tomkins has used what sounds more like old fashion experimentation more than technological processing, yet for the most part channels the creaks, groans, and vibrations of an autoharp into diverse and varied compositions.  While it lacks the brutality and aggression of his other projects, it retains the structure and composition that set Sutcliffe Jugend apart from many similar noise bands.

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Review of the Day

Nurse With Wound, "Shipwreck Radio Volume One: Seven Sonic Structures from Utvaer"

ICR
Steven Stapleton and Colin Potter's voluntary three-month banishment to the icy realms of Lofoten, Norway has borne fruit in the form of this double album on ICR. As was reported, these two prime movers of experimental sound were sent high above the Arctic Circle May through July of this year, with limited recording equipment and no musical instruments, to record a series of audio responses to their harsh environment, which were then transmitted to the local mariner's radio station at unannounced intervals. Stapleton and Potter have further edited and processed the original broadcasts, ending up with a total of two hours of sound, seven lengthy tracks. Shipwreck Radio works best when Stapleton and Potter seem to be genuinely interacting and responding to their alien, inhospitable environment, rather than falling back on familiar NWW strategies. The microcosmic sound world of ice slowly melting and cracking apart merge with the lonely, distant calls of arctic seabirds on the compelling "June 17," which slowly backslides into glacial crevasse where a mutually indecipherable conversation between Stapleton and a Norwegian child is repeatedly looped and mutated. Each track is named for the date that it was broadcast, and a handy map of the Lofoten Archipelago is printed on the discs themselves, showing the geographical location where each recording was made. When the artists seem to be most engaged with their environment — forming makeshift percussion out of blocks of ice, parts of vessels and disused metal scrap and transforming recordings of arctic creatures, water runoff and wind tunnel noises into organic drones — Shipwreck Radio really clicks as an album and a concept. On the opposite end of the spectrum are tracks like the album's opener "June 15," which renders the source recordings completely unrecognizable, digitally processing them into a distorted, post-industrial rhythmic dirge that wears out its welcome well before the ten-minute mark has been reached. Colin Potter's droning muse seems to have exerted a stronger influence on disc two, which exploits environmental noises and subtle looping and processing to create textural expanses of beautifully chilly ambience. "June 5" sounds like an orchestra slowly succumbing to the pulse-deadening effects of hypothermia, stretching out each chord to epic lengths, as ever more minute bits of audio detritus pan around the stereo channels. As the album trudges on, things become darker, more menacing and more sluggish, perhaps as a result of the inevitable fatigue experienced in such a hostile environment where the sun unmercifully shines for nearly 24 hours each day. There is an organic, impromptu feel to much of this music that lends it an immediacy not usually experienced with Nurse With Wound music, which often seems rather painstakingly processed, mutated and generally tortured to within an inch of its life. This helps the album operate as a sort of freeform travelogue or audio diary. The first edition of 100 copies came with a bonus disc, Lofoten Deadhead (a reference to the excerpted bit of Norwegian radio where a local explains why the Grateful Dead is "the ultimate band"), which contains more variations on the same audio sources, as well as a 30-minute track of untreated recordings of Stapleton and Potter experimenting with different methods of creating compelling noises from their surroundings, fussing about with objects and arguing with each other. It's unfortunate that this was not included on the album proper, as it is both entertaining and provides a glimpse into the duo's working methods that enriches the material on the other two discs. Taken together, even with its momentary lapses of originality, Shipwreck Radio is a fascinating entry in both artists' substantial discographies.

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