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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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Andreas Martin

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Review of the Day

Biosphere, "Autour de la Lune"
Touch
Geir Jenssen lives in a different world. From his Artic Circle perch the man called Biosphere is building a body of work as iconoclastic as Aphex Twin, with as much eerie remove and accidental influence. Albums like Patashnik and Substrata are landmarks in ambient music not because they spawned a million rip-offs but because they work within a recognizable stylistic blueprint to create absolutely alien music, threatening total immersion to even the most cautious of "background" listeners. Jenssen's last, 2002's Shenzhou found him treading further towards alienating extremes, something like a pitch-black homage to Debussy, with orchestra samples stretched thin and opaque across an ocean of icy, crevice-filled ambience (in other words, what we all wished Drukqs had been). Autour, commissioned by French radio last year, not only rejects anything close to a wide "radio" audience, but it is by far the most trying Biosphere release thus far, with Jenssen moving past the beat-less transparencies begun with Substrata and into a harsh meditation on deep-space, a 74-minute confined drift that begins well into the air-less upper regions and does not conclude until positioned hopelessly within a dimensionless dump-off on the darker side of some heavenly body. Occupying a third of the disc's length, the opening "Translation" acts like the final kiss-off to Earth and the earthen sounds that often find a place in Biosphere music. A rebus of plastic tones, entwined with enough care to erase all human touch, becomes a sky-like ceiling with which groaning engine sounds and whining drones struggle in a pitiless slipping, past the threshold and into the heart of Autour. Apart from a track or two based around a few distorted samples from a 60s radio dramatization of Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (the "focus" of the 2003 commission) and actual recordings of MIR astronauts, the majority of the disc develops a vacuous, unsettling atmosphere made up of seriously subsonic bass frequencies and shrill, synthetic tones dividing and encasing the deliberate arcs and hidden textures of each of the nine "movements." By the sixth track, "Circulaire," the trip has arrived at a false ending of sorts, an off-putting climax where the piece grounds out to two dissenting sounds, one a near-inaudible below-bass pulse and the other the sinister calm of a solid flatline. From this remote place, more Onkyo than Eno, Jenssen really has nowhere to drift except slowly back towards the beginning, to the lush plasticities of "Trombant," almost coming full circle on the opening track but stopping short, allowing melody and lush texture enough footing only to remind us of what has been left behind. Melodies emerge, like the aimless cosmonaut voice samples, as if beamed from a great distance, light years into the black, like ghosts of a human presence long since abandoned. Autour is not easy listening, and if it doesn't stand as the most returnable place in the Biosphere catalog, it's only because Jenssen has never sounded so remote and thoroughly haunting.

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