A wonderfully symbolic pairing of vinyl albums celebrating the timeless label's 30th anniversary last year. Islands In-Between reproduces the first non-compilation release, (a series of field recordings by label owner and curator Jon Wozencroft) and a double album celebration featuring contributions by much of the label's current roster. The pairing shows where the label has been and where it is going, and that consistency has not waned in these three decades.
Islands In-Between was the first full-length work published by the label as a cassette in 1983, capturing music and local ambience found throughout Wozencroft's travels in Java and Bali. While apparently consisting of 15 distinct pieces, it works best as two side-long experiences that natural sit alongside each other.
As far as the music presented goes, gamelan is heavily represented throughout, from the complex, polyrhythmic "Gending Gending" and two separate "Degugn Instrumental" pieces, all of which make for dense, hypnotic works that occasionally drop to a slow, pensive pace before once again returning to the unrelenting rhythms. "Cremation Gamelan" and "Ramayana II" are barer, conveying a more reverent, ceremonial tone within them.
Interspersed throughout these pieces are a variety of field recordings taken in the area. "Watermark" is perhaps the perfect synopsis of the label, albeit one taken 30 years ago: a subtle suite of insects and frogs convey a timeless, organic sensibility before being rudely interrupted by the aggressive, modernist sound of a revving motorcycle engine. "Frog Sound" and "Ducks", while giving away their sources in their respective titles, appear much more complex when detached from their natural habitat. At times the croaks and bird calls sounds seem to drift into what more closely resembles traditional instrumentation rather than natural phenomena.
Fast forward 30 years, and the double album celebration of the label, consisting of 18 exclusive pieces from most of the label’s active roster, feels more like a cohesive composition rather than a compilation. With the vinyl showing no clear delineation between pieces, and the CD version indexed as four songs, it is surely no accident.
Other than the first piece, a field recording by Wozencroft as Touch 33, the remainder of the first side is the only point where who exactly is being heard can be questionable. Fennesz's "55 Cancri e" retains his understated sense of melody, but buried amidst a low frequency layer that segues almost too well into Bruce Gilbert's sweeping electronic and metallic groans on "Apis." This too is a bit difficult to discern where it ends and Rosy Parlane's "Awhitu" begins. It is only through the occasional obvious guitar scrape that Oren Ambarchi's "Merely a Portmanteau" is obvious.
The remaining three sides pair more contrasting artists and pieces together, from the sparse piano tones and low end swells of Eleh's "Overwoven" into BJNilsen's London field recording "The cackle of dogs and laughter of death" and the sequenced white noise of Nana April Jun's "High and Low and Mid Plane Mass". Ironically, these pairings can also seem to favor one artist over another: CM von Hausswolff's "Cleansing of the Cruel Tyrant's Chamber" buries a rhythmic pulse under a brittle layer of noise, while Jana Winderen creates a similar ambience with "In a Silent Place" via submerged hydrophones, but knowing the organic nature of her work, as well as the other elements of the environment captured makes her contribution more compelling.
Taken independently, Mika Vainio's "Erstwhile" is quite strong, with sounds generated via electric guitar destroyed and reconstructed digitally to bear almost no resemblance to where they began. Biosphere's "Gryfici" somehow manages to capture the sounds of his bike's brakes and reshapes them into an appropriately grinding, but also melodically understated composition.
The contrast of how these two albums are presented does a great job of demonstrating how the label has evolved as well: Islands In-Between is a plain white sleeve, with an unlabeled vinyl inside, only discerned by a small sticker adhered to the front. Conversely, Touch 30 is a lavish gatefold LP, beautifully capturing Wozencroft's photography and understated sense of design. As a label, Touch has consistently impressed me ever since I heard my first work from them, which I believe was New Order's Video 586 (which remains a favorite). As I have been following them since, there are always works I favor more than others, and these milestone releases continue that tradition.
- Gending Gending
- Ramayana II
- Overwoven (Eleh)
- In A Silent Place (Jana Winderen)
- Gryfici (Biosphere)