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Elian: Whispers, then Silence

img  Tobias Fischer

Complex thoughts can be wrapped up in alluring packaging. Even though Michael Duane Ferrell's 2005-Elian-full-length „We are all visitors here“ dealt with profound philosophical themes of death, transience, the immeasurable expanse of the earth and the relative insignificance of humanity, they came enveloped by some of the sweetest, most sensual and dulcet sounds conceivable, by drones so warm, liquid and fragrant, that a hot foam bath seemed acerbic in comparison. The young Ian Hawgood, who at the time was yet to release his first album, listened attentively to these expansive, slowly simmering and patiently growing soundscapes, impressed by their depth and inspired by a highly virtuoso handling of time as a compositional element. His own work, classics like „A Life in Abstract Colors“ in particular, would soon map out a territory bordering Ferrell's, delineating a zone of pure and passionate electronic expressionism. When receiving an Elian-demo perfectly in sync with his plans of setting up his Home Normal label with friend and co-curator Ben Jones, it seemed only natural to make it one of the figurehead-releases on the fledgling imprint, especially since it seemed to him „one of the albums which defined exactly what Home Normal would be for me“. And yet, „Whispers, then Silence“, in a way, has turned out the exact opposite of its illustrious predecessor.

The smooth and soft surface of „Visitors“, after all, has given way to a quicksand-like sonic soil ruptured by unpredictable transformational processes. Change is the only constant on this map of perpetually shifting coordinates: Widescreen cinematics have been replaced by bacteria-scale sonic movements underneath a scanning microscope. Clear shapes are distorted, recognisable forms disfigured, transparent silhouettes obliterated. Linear arrangements are turned upside down, shaken and reconfigurated into acousmacubistic sculptures. And even though richly resonant drones and echoes of melody are still part of the equation, they have become mere fleeting shadows cast on an epic canvas scarcely populated by crackle, hiss, electric plops and snippeted blips. Everything that was once grand is now condensed. What was majestic now appears humble. What seemed endless and infinite turns out to be closely circumscribed. Ferell has diverted his focus  from sustaining ambiances towards shattering them, from working with drawn-out tones to moulding short, singular samples into snappy minimal pulses and creaking textures. There is no obvious thematic development anymore, with harmonic motives appearing between the cracks of these micronoise-abstractions and then abruptly and unceremoniously disappearing into the miniature galaxy they emanated from again.

And yet, two essential characteristic of Ferell's technique have remained firmly intact: The ability to distort sensory perception and an almost tender relationship with his sound materials. „Whispers, then Silence“ reveals its essence as early as the first few bars of the quarter-of-an-hour-long meditation of the opening title track. For a few seconds, subsonic bass waves are left lingering in the physical, just barely audible range of the spectrum, Hawgood having once again delivered a striking demonstration of his exquisite mastering skills. Then, solitary Vibraphone notes are sent through a delay, fade into silence,  regroup into harmonically related rhythmical patterns and newly connect by means of call and response processes. It is a music of great purity and simplicity, a possible prelude to a chambermusical composition for a ghost, which never materialises. And this is just the beginning: The same piece will feature a passage which could have been recorded at a vast bat cave, a deep melancholic swell, granular textures similar to the sounds of a miniature steam loco as well as a shimmering silky tissue of overtones unfolding into a rich, peaceful drone.

The remaining tracks are no less sweeping. The press release dolls out terms like „broad“ and „ambitious“ to these imposing constructs and one could just as easily regard them as harbingers of a new genre of progressive or even symphonic micronoise. And yet, it is not so much their expansive scope but rather the notable ignorance of conventional narrative logic that renders them so utterly individual: While some sequences could, with a little bending and twisting, be construed as a result of what came before, most of them are, in fact, like metaphorical islands drifting through an ocean of never ending now-ness, far from the shores of memory and association. The approach blows the classical idea of music as a world of interrelated ideas to pieces, but  Ferell isn't surrendering to arbitrariness. His point seems to be that it is only by withdrawing from rational explanation that one can create a music that knows no past and has no future and truly exist nowhere but in the moment.

And yet, favouring intuition over order yields a unique chance for a fresh start: Perhaps the glowing harmonies of gentle closer „Lessons in Never Again“ could be just as  effective as the finale to a more traditional album than „Whispers, then Silence“. But they could never strike one with the full weight and heart wrenching force of witnessing beauty for the very first time.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Elian /  Michael Duane Ferrell
Homepage: Home Normal Records

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