As a teenage surfer Matt McBane became obsessed with the sea and the way in which the bathymetry of the ocean floor affects the way that waves break. His composition Bathymetry mirrors that relationship, with his bass synthesizer providing the platform to shape the more trebly waves of varied percussion played by Sandbox Percussion (a well-named and playful ensemble). On the surface, this album is slightly out of my, rather idiosyncratic, comfort zone. The accompanying videos were off-putting and (politeness dictates that I cannot write what I would cheerfully do with them) ping-pong balls overused. Despite this, my listening curiosity was piqued and held steady. Then halfway through the 40 minute duration, the track "Groundswell" completely won me over, and I rode a wave of enjoyment all the way to the end. Later on, afer repeated listens, it occurred to me that the same process happens on each track, as bursts of percussive grit, pops and scrapes away, to eventually leave the rewarding pearl.
For whatever reason, I found that the second half of Bathymetry has a greater emotional and melodic impact, perhaps due to the slower pace and less cluttered soundscape. This allows the synthesizer to be more prominent and the percussion more glassy and transparent (maybe hitting bottles and bowls, or using vibraphone, instead of dropping the aforementioned balls). I have heard nurses describe conversations with certain patients as like playing table tennis with someone who rarely tries to hit the ball back and I detect a similar movement, and progression, here. As intriguing the first twenty minutes or so is, from "Groundswell" onwards it's game on. The use of a traditional drum kit there, and also on "Refraction" comes as a refreshing surprise and the effect is propulsive, as if we've been lowered slowly down into the depths of the ocean which is intriguing, but now are off and zooming around exploring in a small submarine. At several points, including "Coda", we hear what could be an underwater bell or gong; very appropriate as similar to sounds punctuating Hendrix's extended aquatic-themed pieces "1983 A Merman I Should Turn To Be" and "Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently Gently Away." The feel of Bathymetry becomes rather like improvised ambient chamber music with overtones of both dub and Harry Partch, although his percussive bowls were called cloud chamber bowls and it's possibly a breach of some critical rule to mention his name and the word "ambient" in the same sentence.
This release also got me thinking about the idiosyncrasies of taste. One example: I have always trusted the sound of murky recordings from the early 20th century and associated the accompanying vinyl crackles and scratches with a kind of primal sophistication. Those sounds trigger (in me) a stamp of approval, to certify raw soulfulness, noble creativity, and unadorned reality, all of which should be loved. The flip side of this is my subconscious mistrust of (not all) slicker recordings, and knee-jerk caution when approaching music which seems "well-dressed'' in the sense of favoring a sophistication based upon greater clarity of production and technical ability. It's a definite bias and one which I have no intention of abandoning any time soon, despite exceptions which prove the rule, such as Bathymetry.