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Evan Caminiti, "Varispeed Hydra"

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cover imageBilled as a thematic successor to 2017's Toxic City Music, Evan Caminiti's latest release delves even deeper into the fragmented and deconstructionist dub experimentation of its predecessor.  In a few important ways, however, Varispeed Hydra is a very different album.  For one, it is conceptually inspired by rural sounds and the fragility of the natural environment rather than by dystopian urban environments.  More significantly, Caminiti's music subverts traditional dub techno structures in an even more challenging way, often distilling the form down to just a few simple chords expanding and contracting in a disorienting state of suspended animation.  Given that pointed lack of hooks, rhythm, or harmonic evolution, Varispeed Hydra is not the easiest Caminiti album to love, but he manages to make the paroxysms of that hyper-limited palette far more compelling than I would have expected.

Dust Editions

I have by no means fully explored Evan Caminiti's extensive and varied discography, but I have certainly heard enough to grasp that he has always been creatively restless and somewhat inscrutable.  In fact, Barn Owl alone covered an unusually wide swath of stylistic ground during that project’s six-year run and that was just one of Caminiti's many guises and collaborative projects.  Consequently, it was not all that surprising that he eventually delved into dub techno, but it is a bit unexpected that he has stuck with it as long as he has.  Given that Caminiti has already proven that he has both a real aptitude for the genre and a very distinctive vision for it, he must believe that there are still unexplored frontiers left to pioneer: Caminiti is not one to keep doing the same thing again and again just because he happens to be good at it.  In fact, he takes such a radical approach to dub with Varispeed Hydra that it almost dissolves into "ambient" territory.  All of the elements of classic Chain Reaction or Mille Plateaux fare are present in theory (warm pads, burbling synths, deep bass), yet they are all stretched, blurred, and disrupted to the point of floating stasis.  Or as the album's description poetically puts it, Varispeed Hydra is akin to "a collection of broken transmissions, terrestrial sounds melting into the abstract and rising again as vaporous spectres."  Beyond that newly vaporous approach, the album's underlying ecological concept manifests itself in yet another new feature: buried animal sounds, such as the cheerily chirping birds that lurk behind the fog of the opening "Hand in Flame."  There is also a significant change in mood since the bleak and corroded-sounding Toxic City Music, as a lot of these pieces are built from comparatively warm and lush chords (even if they feel frozen in time).  

Given that the backbone of the album is essentially reverberant washes of synth chords in a haze of ghostly guitar swells, crackles, hisses, and submerged field recordings, each of the album's ten pieces feel more like variations on a theme than like discrete entities with their own distinct character.  Some are better than others, obviously, but the baseline level of quality is quite solid.  In that regard, "Holo," is as representative of the album as any other piece: after a brief introduction of natural sounds (birds and a stream), the piece coheres into a slow pulse of stammering synth chords that quietly gurgle and reverberate without any real sense of evolution or threat of a possible chord change.  Instead, all of the activity is textural, as the chords lazily heave and undulate as a host of hisses, shudders, and sharper, more grinding tones organically ebb and flow in their midst.  Occasionally a piece like "Morphogenesis" will lock into an erratically heaving yet still recognizably rhythmic pulse, but if any actual kick drums or cymbals exist on this album, they have been abstracted into bloodless shadows.  Still, Caminiti proves to be quite a sorcerer at finding new ways to make the same sounds seem fresh and compelling and there are a couple of especially fine pieces near the end of the album.  On the first, the brief "Airlock," Caminiti allows his chords to occasionally fade into the background to shift the focus to a unusual groove that sounds like it is made up of a piece of metal, a rustling field of windblown grass, and some gnarled surges of bass tones.  Then on "Russian Palm," the chords take on the flickering, trebly feel of a ghostly radio transmission while a more structured and substantial piece gradually takes shape in the depths.  It is quite a nice bit of compositional sleight of hand, though Caminiti stops short of quite letting it materialize into a full-on song.

It is that deliberate lack of "songs" that leaves me with some conflicting feelings about Varispeed Hydra, though I suspect the less positive ones are mostly due to my own expectations rather than any shortcomings in execution.  Still, I am reminded of a Thomas Bernhard book that I recently read (Correction) in which a character keeps mercilessly editing a manuscript until there is ultimately nothing left.  Given that Caminiti spent three years working on this album, it is not hard to see the obvious parallel, but only he knows whether or not this album was ever destined to be more structured and straightforward than it eventually turned out.  And, of course, it feels wrong to lament that Caminiti was too original and too aggressive in using the tools of dub techno to completely subvert the structure of dub techno.  Consequently, it is best to view the album as pure sound art, as Caminiti took an incredibly difficult road and devoted himself solely to walking the blurry line where form and abstraction bleed together.  Viewed in that light, Varispeed Hydra makes a lot more sense and seems like a far more unambiguous success than it does as an "outsider dub" album (albeit a success with the caveat that Hydra is VERY much a headphone album).  Experienced at significant volume and with the benefit of focused listening, this album reveals itself to be a seething, sizzling, and multilayered production tour de force and quite an absorbing one at that.  While I might feel a bit guilty for wishing that Caminiti would play to his strengths a bit more, I have doubt that he knows exactly what he is doing and I heartily appreciate his willful avoidance of the expected and the familiar.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 04 May 2020 05:37  


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