RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Dirk Serries: "Microphonics I-VII"; 3 Seconds of Air: "The Flight of Song"

img  Tobias

When faced with a writer's block, some musicians may come to doubt it, but creativity is not a scarce good. You can not exhaust it. You can not use it up. In its very nature, it is infinite. Dirk Serries' discography in the new millennium is a good example. While some may wonder when this man actually sleeps, his releases over the past four years have all fed from each other in a never-ending fertility cycle, with one album organically begetting its successor. In 2008, his main project Fear Falls Burning even seemed to be undergoing a subconscious personality-split, resulting in an even more prolific schedule: While FFB was to follow down the road of wilful, percussion-powered full-length „Frenzy of the Absolute“, an uncompromising cross-over success between metallic distortion, droning diffusion and industrial dystopia, two new musical entities were to pursue a more ambient direction: Microphonics, which saw Serries zooming in on the layers of fragility hidden underneath the sonic onslaught of his majestic Guitar reverberations. And 3 Seconds of Air, a trio with his wife Martina Verhoeven and befriended Blues-brother Paul van den Berg, which added Verhoeven's tactile Bass explorations to the male duo which had previously conjured up the black magic of „The Amplifier Drone“.

In just over a year, Microphonics has, however, confidently established itself as more than just a side-thought. With an album, two one-track EPs, well-received performances at galleries, installations and festivals as well as an extensive upcoming tour through Europe already to its credit, the attention is just as much down to hard work and solid craftsmanship as it is to a clear concept for  his latest brainchild. When „Microphonics „I-V“ was published in late Summer of 2008, after all, it seemed as though this was going to be both the continuation of the atmospheric arm of Fear Falls Burning as well as a bridge to Serries' past as Vidna Obmana: There were nods to the ceaselessly recombining loops of his early, semi-naive ambient works. There were moments of ethereal romanticism, akin to the classic „River of Appearance“.  And then there were allusions to the soft spots of records like „The Carnival of Ourselves“ (see pictured), which had remained firm favourites with artist and audience alike despite Serries' increasing orientation towards the Metal-camp. And yet, with a year of hindsight, the mechanisms of Microphonics are proving to be more idiosyncratic than initially be expected. Drone building with Fear Falls Burning had always been about subdued power, about subcutaneous muscle-flexing and the tension of unreleased potential. Relistening to the dreamy tracks on „He spoke in Dead Tongues“ today, it is becoming clear that even though they might have foreshadowed future developments in a metaphorical sense, there is no denying that they were essentially made from a fundamentally different cloth.

What really sets these approaches apart is how much Microphonics is the result of Serries' growing experience as a live sound sculptor. In this respect, it is certainly no coincidence that the latest two installments in the series have been culled from recent concerts: In a suitably intimate space, there is no need to overwhelm listeners with forceful dynamics or drown them in a sea of distortion. The whole project, in fact, is based on astute expertise about how to develop a track through discreet transformations rather than working towards demonstrative climaxes. As the music moves through a string of transient states, the public is instead able to actively participate in the subtle unfolding of a track and to observe how its narrative unravels according to an undeniable plan. Even though the collaboration between Fear Falls Burning and English Flute-wizard Theo Travis on „The Tonefloat Sessions“ may come close to this approach, literature, rather than music, is yielding sensible analogies here: Similar to a Shakespearean tragedy, each element contains the seed of its own rise, triumph, decline and eventual demise within itself – even though  the composed melancholia and resonating warmth of these up to 22-minute long constructs rather counterpoints the genial bard's heart-wrenching fatefulness.

Both „Microphonics VI“, a recording of a performance at the Whatbar in The Hague and „Microphonics VII“, a set from the Live Looping Fest in Antwerp, are therefore possibly more representative of Serries' intentions than the studio-LP. On the former, a sultry three-note-motive forms the backbone of the entire piece, intertwining with fleeting melodics and temporary semblances of sensuality and submerging itself into a perpendicular process of pulsating slow-motion-rotation. The original theme, snowed under by soft flakes of crystaline softness, returns as a tenderly-triumphant two-note torso, before the track gently grinds to a halt in a peaceful near-silence-coda. The latter may well be the most intimate, slowly developing and minimal piece of music Serries has ever released. From what appears to be the same opening harmonic foundation, a brittle melody rises like smoke from a dying candle. For minutes, its outlines remain oblique and hazy, like a soul on astral vacation, keeping an eye out for a suitable solid body to inhabit. Its search will continue throughout the entire piece. Overtone dabbers float on top of a harmonic cloud like the fantasy of a Flute while, at times, echoes of a theme or idea return to the fore like spontaneous, but short-lived afterthoughts. But as much as they seem to herald a break or rupture, the music keeps flowing forward towards an uncertain destination, forever retaining the composed breath and comforting heartbeat of its very first seconds.

While Fear Falls Burning always profited from the use of a wide array of effects and techniques, suggesting an expanding cosmos of possibilities, the different episodes of the Microphonics saga are all taking place in the same galaxy. Just how far apart these two concepts are can be discerned by comparing „VI“ and „VII“ to FFB's „Woes of the Desolate Mourner“. Currently available as a limited 7inch soon to be followed-up by an integral rendition on CD (scheduled for December), this all-too-often overlooked item also introduces itself with yearning streaks of Guitar lines. But while these pristine opening bars are quickly subsumed by a towering wall of drones, his more recent releases simply stay put. By keeping timbral and productional parameters fairly constant, Serries is able to focus the listeners attention on the details of these parameters – as well as on the process of shaping them. Conequentially, none of these pieces is satisfied with the sedated stasis of many Ambient releases nor with the disruptive development of experimental Sound Art. Microphonics nestles in between these poles and offers the rare sensation of witnessing something both profoundly moving and sensory stimulating.

An important aspect of the Microphonics concept which has gone unmentioned until now – and which, coincidentally, somewhat puts the notion of similar timbral qualities in perspective – is the importance placed on how sound is created as an immediate response to the spatial characteristics of its environment. This ideais even of seminal importance with regards to Serries' latest ensemble-project 3 Seconds of Air. For two days, the band retreated to the St Theobaldus Chapel in Belgium – a tiny but history-fraught space of worship just outside of Brecht. As recordings took place in the middle of the Winter and amidst the freezing cold, the improvised, but meticulously planned sessions turned into a seance with and against the elements. Taped straight to hard-disc and blessed with a „no overdubs, no editing“-philosophy, the final product of an integral CD-LP set now breathes the very sacral spirit of the moment it was created in.

Opener „Dead Poets Sing the Sunless Land“ sets the mood for the entire album: Drenched in adorational sanctity, a basic chord cycle creates a spiritual riverbed, which runs through a plethora of variations and adornments. As Serries' and van den Berg's Guitars melt from ecstatic sighs and devotional murmurs into a silky surface of shimmering reflections, Verhoeven's Bass is adding a layer of pointillist resonance and a weightless sense of motion. All actions are circular, immersed in concentrated routines which never fully reveal themselves to the listener, creating a moebius-strip-like sensation of covering a lot of distance without ever arriving anywhere. With the exception of major-key mantra „Ghosts Stream the Harmony of Delight“ and the pitch-black psychedelics of „In the flowerless fields of the damned“, the remaining three pieces could be mistaken for different takes on the same idea, with Verhoeven's contribution at times appearing to bleed straight from one long sonic excursion to the next.

This would be a simplistic perception however. As mentioned, 3 Seconds of Air is all about the interaction and communication between three very different musicians and a particular space. The outcome can therefore be considered a Quartet of equals, with St Theobaldus functioning as a warped mirror, reflecting the musical motives guided into its lens. As a result, some of the action may seem surreally deformed and trippy – but it is always communicated through the same channels. Which is why the one track standing out from the fold stylistically is Steven Wilson's reconstruction of the material. Despite being quite as otherworldly, spooky and ephemeral as the other pieces, it lacks the chapel's fourth dimension – making up for it with a confounding touch of surrealism.

It should seem strange that some have supposedly observed striking similarities between the concepts behind 3 Seconds of Air and Microphonics. Not just in terms of sound, but also with regards to the actual dronebuilding itself, the airy but rich, cool but comforting and imposing rather than intimate soundscapes of Verhoeven and van den Berg could hardly be more different from Serries' solo work. While the first three volumes of Microphonics are sure to make for ideal companions to winterly reading sessions, the cathedral acoustics of „The Flight of Song“ are probably the stuff you'll reserve for a few truly special moments. If there is something they share, though, then it is their unrestrained belief that their concepts can never be exhausted or used up, as minimal and limited as they may seem to observers. On the inside, after all, there are neither limits nor ends to creativity.

By Tobias Fischer

3 Seconds of Air pictures by Herman Stehouwer

Homepage: Dirk Serries
Homepage: 3 Seconds of Air
Homepage: Tonefloat Records