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Paul Baran: "Panoptic"

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Panoptic, the debut album by Scottish composer Paul Baron, is the sound of free improvisation smothered in a dark dystopian cloud. A musical commentary on globalization and technological saturation, the compositions seethe with a spine-chilling sense of paranoia and stagnation. Euphonium and acoustic guitar drift uneasily over the sounds of static and ghostly electronics. Metallic prepared piano and harp flurry arhythmically around field recordings and sustained organ notes.

Following “Scotoma Song,” a composition consisting of 0:00 minutes of silence, Panoptic opens with “Lewitt,” an eerie and jazzy post-rock number in the vein of Isotope 217. Easily the album’s most accessible and coherent number, the piece follows pensive euphonium over a seemingly clear-cut chord progression anchored with hard backbeat rim-shots. From there the album deconstructs into largely improvised atmospheric compositions that revel in uneasiness.

“Tonefield” colors slowly bending horn notes with high-pitched electronic inflections that bring to mind the sound of children screaming. In “The Corrector,” prepared piano stutters over low churning cello notes and slow, unstable acoustic guitar arpeggios. “Love Under Surveillance” layers spaced-out piano notes over ominous rumbles of bass, brushed drums, and reversed sounds. “Brauzenkeit (Ekkehard Ehlers Mix)” sounds like the inside of a Kubrick spaceship, its pulsing bass a mechanical heartbeat amidst groaning machines.

For the most part, Panoptic drifts and twists without melodic or harmonic direction (at least in the traditional sense). Rather, the compositions exist as ethereal clouds without trajectory toward an end point—snapshots of different scenarios in a computer-dominated world. What makes the music listenable and truly intriguing is the dark emotional charge and conceptual coherency, which prevent the album from slipping into a self-gratuitous noise experiment.

While the constant claustrophobia of dissonance and slow-churning improvisational structures make Panoptic a bit difficult to digest at times, Baron’s masterful production and the instrumentalists’ ability to improvise as a textural collective whole make for an emotionally moving, if disturbing, listen that keeps you captivated over the course of an hour of music. Closing with the eerie “Pomerol,” in which a spaceman’s radio signal loses contact over delicate piano clusters, the music paints a picture of a sedate futuristic nightmare.

By Hannis Brown

Homepage: Paul Baran
Homepage: Fang Bomb Records

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