After a decade-long hiatus, Aki Onda returns to his field recording series with a collage of recordings made during his first trip to Mexico back in 2005. While the recordings themselves form a evocative and sometimes beautiful narrative, the surreality of Aki's travelogue is further enhanced by the fact that two of his three recorders began malfunctioning during the project. As a result, South of the Border is occasionally bizarre enough to transcend the field recording genre and drift into relatively uncharted and unpredictable territory.
South of the Border endearingly begins in what is quite possibly the least hip and experimental way possible, as "A Day of Pilgrimage" is essentially nothing more than a recording of a vaguely sad and out-of-tune-sounding marching band followed by a minute or so of muted, subtly distorted street noise. Such an odd opening to the album definitely wrong-footed me, as it seems like there is nothing at all particularly artful about the piece: it is literally just a fairly lo-fi recording of a parade and nothing more. Still, it had enough of ramshackle charm and mystery to it to make me want to keep listening, which turned out to be a good decision.
My gratification was not exactly instant, however, as the 9-minute piece that follows (the prosaically titled "Dust") seems to be just a largely untreated recording of a dust storm. Fortunately, a few hints of something more begin to appear, as odd mechanical noises and an brief tape-distressed voice intrude upon the desolate-sounding low roar of the wind. Thankfully, this quizzical effort finally blossoms about a third of the way through "Bruise and Bite," as the seemingly directionless hiss and crackle that opens the piece suddenly gives way to a very clear and haunting flute melody of some kind.
The transition caught me completely off-guard, as South of the Border immediately went from sounding like something harvested from Chris Watson's studio trash to something that sounds like a beatless Muslimgauze. From that point onward, it became clear to me that while Aki's mental process may be entirely baffling to me, he is actually in complete control of what he is doing. As the forlorn flute is joined by blurred and indecipherable human voices and a tortured-sounding counter-melody, "Bruise and Bite" evolves into something truly beautiful and moving. Of course, it would have been nice if Onda's triumph was not bloated by its seemingly pointless four-minute introduction, but I suppose all of that unpromising hiss and clatter was necessary for the big surprise.
Happily, Onda's hot streak continues off and on for the rest of the album. The unpromising marching band tenaciousnessly returns for "The Sun Clings to the Earth and There is No Darkness," but they are gradually drowned out by a rather distressed recording of a flock of birds that sounds sounds increasingly menacing and apocalyptic. Then the album's lengthy final piece, "I Tell A Story of Bodies That Change," successfully reprises the droning-and-melancholy-flutes aesthetic of "Bruise and Bite." It never comes anywhere near reproducing the aching beauty of its predecessor, but Aki gets significantly more ambitious with his collaging, so its 17 minutes follow a compelling unpredictable and subtly shifting trajectory.
Uncharacteristically, I have listened to this album several times without ever quite figuring out quite what Onda is trying to do or whether or not he may have succeeded. I do know that Mexico is a very significant place for Aki, which stems from both a love of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and Aki's own childhood memories of his Olympian father's videos taken during the '68 Summer Olympics. Consequently, I suspect that there is a lot of hidden meaning and emotion in these recordings that does not quite translate to me. Still, my jaded ears were definitely struck by both "Bruise and Bite" and the subsequent bird attack. Otherwise, South of the Border remains something of an enigma for me, lying somewhere between "15 great minutes embedded in a sea of relative non-inspiration" and "a mysterious aesthetic too personal and unique for me to fully grasp." Odds are, it is the former, but it is certainly an unusual and curiously ambiguous effort regardless.
- Bruise and Bite
- The Sun Clings To The Earth And There Is No Darkness
- I Tell A Story Of Bodies That Change