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The Green Kingdom: Prismatic & Prismatic Remixes

img  Tobias Fischer

Sometimes, a beautiful illusion can be far more compelling than the truth. Imagine, for example, that, as a toddler, Michael Cottone was left behind on a moonless night in a deep, labyrinthine wood. Fed by a fox, kept warm at night by a wolf, educated by the owls and with birds, bears and bees for friends, the forest would have been his family and the world outside a threat, a grotesque caricature and a source of dark whispers and nightmares. Now picture that after a carefree childhood the hand of fate would remorselessly lead this boy back into „civilisation“ by making him loose his way one day, wash away his footsteps with rain and cause him to stumble into a nearby town, where the local inhabitants would admit him into their community on the promise of never returning to his „primitive“ past. Wouldn't it make complete sense for him to express his longing for the peace, quiet and harmony of his former life by writing the most peaceful, quiet and harmonious music imaginable? Wouldn't he intuitively reach for the instruments whose natural colours most closely resemble the sounds of the green kingdom whence he came from, for acoustic guitar, xylophone, kalimba and cello? And wouldn't he feel a natural urge to align himself with the folk tradition, whose vast body of song refers to a time when nature and men were not enemies, but dependent on each other? As a former child of the forest, it should seem only logical for him to eventually start building intricate sonic worlds like Prismatic to not only document his memories - but to share and inhabit with others as well, to taste that sweet sensation of freedom once again.

In reality, of course, Michael Cottone's biography doesn't mention any prolonged pastoral adventures or tree-hugging-episodes whatsoever. Earning his living as a graphic designer, Cottone is today based in Detroit, Michigan, a city whose tribute to musical history books is generally reduced to the ice-cold textures, machinal poundings and impersonal aesthetics of techno. Today a metropolis of 700.000 built for a population four times that size, it is marked as much by the glowing mirror surfaces of its skyscrapers as it is by a pervasive sense of emptiness. And as much as one would expect him to exclusively dedicate his time to digging into the classic John Fahey-albums which influenced his previous full-length Twig & Twine to an important degree, Cottone can regularly be seen spending time on the pages of electronic dance mag Resident Adviser, sharing in his enthusiasm for dub, dubstep and house. Just as on the aforementioned predecessor, subtle echoes of these preferences have again found their way onto Prismatic, with four-to-the-floor-beats making an appearance on tracks like „Radiance Reflected“ and „Bonfire (tec)“, or tiny crystals of crackle coalescing into a weightless electronica-groove on „Bells and Thoughts“. At the same time, these are muffled allusions at best, with the bass drum beating at a hazy 90bpm, as quietly as the pulse of a sleeper. Cottone isn't offering a revolutionary perspective on 21st century soul, he is adjusting its parameters to his artistic preferences, slowing it down, softening its hard metallic edges and adding a touch of humanity and warmth. Even the strikingly rhythm-oriented remixes by the likes of Bvdub, Northerner and The Boats contained on the free bonus disc reserved for the first copies of the album have lost nothing of the ambient drift of the originals, the structures underneath the beats cushioning their impact, the metrum gradually loosing itself like the footsteps of a silent wanderer, walking away into the sunrise on a path of moss.

No wonder, then, that Cottone himself has described The Green Kingdom as a form of escapism, although the term seems slightly derogatory with regards to the incredibly immersive qualities of his acoustic spaces, to their creative coherency and emotional cohesion: While 2008's Laminae was a dark, brooding and almost hallucinatory affair, in which complex, constantly shifting structures could be constructed from tiny parcels of sound, Twig & Twine was of a touching immediacy and carefree naivete – although here, too, just as on his Meadowview debut, instantly familiar melodies and chords were discretely broken apart and mysteriously refined into cloudy drones resembling, in their sultry opaqueness, fog banks hovering over the fields of morning. The recurring nature of elements like hiss, crackle and a select palette of instrumental timbres suggested they were, in a way, different spots within the same, tightly delineated territory. Still, the way every single piece on these works connected with the others simultaneously branded them as self-contained continuums, in which nothing was left to chance and the unfolding of events followed an invisible script, which could be read in all directions of the compass without loosing its meaning.

Within this already recognisable body of work, Prismatic represents a point of utmost refinement and perfection. The themes and textures of the two opening compositions „Bonfire (intro)“ and „Bells and Thoughts“ are picked up again towards the end of the album as „Bonfire (tec)“ and „Thoughts and Bells“, thereby lending a cyclical feeling to the album, with the music increasingly closing in and eventually folding in on itself. At the same time, microscopic markers made of clicks and crackle are placed all over the place, as though musical ideas were all growing from a single layer of sonic soil. Causalities are exceedingly hard to determine here: Already on his self-titled album from 2007, there was a telling moment, when, on opener „Toy Guitar, Hiss, Anxiety, etc.“, the very first note of the guitar seemed to release a microcosm of hiss, as though one could mysteriously conjure up the other. This idea of music acting as a portal into a space between the lines is pervasive on Prismatic, on which arrangements seem to flow from the direction the sounds are taking, rather than the other way round. On „Claude's Ghost“, Cottone at first seems satisfied with painting an iridescent melody on a canvas of charming tinkling and chiming. But as if he had spotted some form of movement in the distance, these silent thoughts fade away and a happily looping bell-motive emerges from the void, dancing on the surface of imagination for three blissful minutes before it, too, disappears from sight.

This is not music imitating nature, this is nature manifesting itself in music and where others will use trivial design templates and cliched cover imagery to conjure up a similar depth, Cottone seems to be intuitively culling it from his subconscious as though it were indeed a personal recollection. There's a fantastical descriptive quality to these pieces, which, more often than not, seem to capture a scene or a moment with utmost precision. At the same time, they really are to be understood as contemporary folk songs and spirituals. In a sense, Cottone is continuing a centuries-old lineage, whose materials demand to be revisited through an unbroken line of generations. It is telling that the bonus disc constitutes a carefully sequenced work in its own right and that each of the tracks contained on it seems intent to bring out particular aspects of the „original“ rather than using it as a departure point for one's own ideas. What this ultimately means is that Prismatic, although easily filed away as „ambient“ or „sound art“ is, in actual fact, far more deeply rooted in storytelling and the oral tradition, in the intimate sharing of knowledge, experience and wisdom. In its view of the world, the layers of the imagined and the factual are seamlessly connected - and during the course of their unfolding, beautiful illusions can be just as „real“ as the naked truth.

It is telling, too, that as part of such a philosophy, Cottone should regard the music as more important than the composer. Behind the increasingly wildly proliferating wetlands and woods of his music, he is turning into a fantastical creature as well, as amazed by the wonders of these sonic creations as the listener. One day, he may withdraw there for good, returning to that imaginary place he is mapping out with such astounding plasticity in his work.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: The Green Kingdom
Homepage: Home Assembly Recordings

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