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CD Feature/ Tomas Phillips: "Drink_Deep"

img  Tobias

Harcore Punk and quiet minimalism are not usually musical companions. And yet, they come together in unison on “DRINK_DEEP”, a work which some will call a tribute, others a remix album and which will probably, for convenience's sake, be filed as an experimental project. Certainly its gestures can be confusing to a world which has decided that even the unclassifiable needs a name, a title and a label to merit a meaning. And yet, it is one of the most easily enjoyable  records of this year for anyone able and willing to just let go and take it for what it is.

This approach to listening, one should assume, would certainly please Tomas Phillips, who has stressed that an essential parameter of quality consists in a piece remaining in the moment. In his case, this is less a rigid spiritual concept than a simple question of interest: Phillips recognises the importance of Cage and Co, but sees his work as a composer in the careful insertion of sound into silence, instead of elevating “unfocussed sound” (as he puts it) to the centre of attention.

Whether this principle was born from his activities as a writer (he talks just as much about Beckett as about music when explaining his approach) or from a general tendency to regard the art of minimalism as a metacategory, which can find its adequate expression in literature, sound, painting, photography or any other  communicable human act, can not be said with absolute certainty. But it does explain for a lot.

Take the concept behind “DRINK_DEEP”, for example. On his latest output for the Austrian Non Visual Objects label, a record outfit which is increasingly growing into a perfectly matching musical home for him, Phillips has used recordings of Punk band “Rites of Spring” as source material for two electronic meditations around the twenty-minute mark. In a way, this can be regarded as revisiting his past. Tomas Phillips, after all, was a band member himself before turning towards computer synthesis and has always tried to keep the feeling of joining forces with a congenial partner alive by engaging in a string of collaborations.

The album alludes to the Reagan-era, which united the underground into little subsections against a mainstream which was becoming increasingly unambitious in creative terms. It explicitly harkens back to a time of “introspection and renewal” as well as to an “ongoing (re)construction of personal and political defiance”. And yet, Phillips doesn’t think in these categories. To him, “Rites of Spring” were not so much a Punk band or part of a scene. They stood for an attitude, which wanted to taste each and every second as if it were the last. “DRINK_DEEP” is therefore not a cross-over project, it is, as the composer points out, a “bridge” between seemingly unrelated genres.

The same can be said about the question of whether this is a tribute. In a quite banal and obvious way, it is, of course. When Phillips mentions the “enduring inspiration” he draws from the band’s releases on Dischord Records or sits down in front of his piano to reproduce a particular chord progression (the middle section of the title track), when the cover imagery is a direct reference to the original Rites of Spring artwork and some bass thumps have survived the manipulation process almost unaltered, then it is all apparent that he is willingly creating a link and a reference.

On the other hand, few “Rites of Spring” fans will probably find the term “tribute” appropriate for a work which in many ways sounds like an inverted picture of the group: Aggression has made way for tenderness, extroversion for introspection, explicitness for metaphors, conciseness for condensed spaciousness. Calling “DRINK_DEEP” a remix album is even completely besides the point: Phillips is not occupied with songs, but with the texture behind them.

So what is it, then? To me, it represents a work written in the spirit of youth, with an attitude of anything goes and everything is possible. Deep drones at the border of perception loom on the horizon, emptying themselves into sizzling and cracking microtonal operations, before melting into aforementioned piano part, which draws its energy from a romantic sense of nostalgia. The second part, “In SILENCE_WORDS AWAY”, is made of a similar cloth, but from more tangible structures: Soft, metallic glissandi, rasping rhythms and a consoling finale in warm colours are the trademarks of a track which again and again rises to overwhelming emotional climaxes.

Both pieces have nothing abstract or intellectual about them and that is where the individuality of Tomas Phillips comes in: Because of his methodology, he will most likely remain glued to the soundart cabinet, even though his musicality speaks a much more expressive language and his arrangements offer many more interpretations than just developing music from a set of source material.

In this sense, “DRINK_DEEP” offers a great potential for identification for a new generation of listeners and musicians, who are either fed up with the notion of experimental music entering a classical phase, in which it erects clear definitions, aesthetics and borders or simply bored by the idea that soundart in itself should not invite traditional structures in to expand its vocabulary. I have a strong feeling that it will offer the same, enduring inspiration as those Rites of Spring records it set out to interpret.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tomas Phillips
Homepage: Nonvisual Objects

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