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Tone Glow 090: Fievel is Glauque
An interview with Fievel is Glauque + our Writers Panel on Nighte's 'Pin down the dust', Deng Boyu's 《Inertion》, and Joshua Bonnetta's 'Innse Gall'
Fievel is Glauque
Led by Belgian Ma Clément (vocals) and New Yorker Zach Phillips (keyboard), prog-pop band Fievel is Glauque formed in 2018 when the pair met in Brussels shortly after Phillips suffered a concussion colliding with a streetlamp. Since then, the band’s lineup has been in a constant state of flux, shuffling members among their vast network of virtuosic friends and acquaintances. Fievel is Glauque’s 2021 debut cassette, God’s Trashmen Sent Straight to the Mess, was recorded in five cities with five unique ensembles. Its tape-warped production and sticky melodies attracted a cult fandom by word-of-mouth, eventually capturing the attention of Stereolab, who invited Phillips and Clément on their North American tour in 2022. Their new album, Flaming Swords, was released November 25 via MATH Interactive. Jude Noel spoke with both members of the duo over Zoom on November 30 about the magic of mono cassette, their fragmentary writing process, and spam folders.
Jude Noel: Hey Ma, Zach just emailed me and said he’d be on here in a few minutes. How are things?
Ma Clément: I’m okay. I don’t know what happened to my eye, but I had to go to the hospital two days ago because there was inflammation. That’s the main thing lately, but it’s okay. Now my eye is pretty weird—the pupil’s so dilated.
We’ll all talk about it in a bit, but you just got finished with your tour with Stereolab about a month ago. How was that?
Ma Clément: It was a crazy experience, I can say that. It was the first real tour I’ve ever done. All those big, big venues and moving around all the time. It was fantastic and so tiring.
Were there any venues that were particular favorites of yours?
Ma Clément: The Fillmore was extremely good. The sound on stage is awesome. I was a bit worried during the soundcheck, but during the show it was magic. I don’t know what happened there. And then First Avenue, this venue that was co-owned by Prince. I don’t remember what city.
Oh, yeah! Probably Minneapolis?
Ma Clément: Yeah. So there, the sound engineers were really great. They really cared about what we needed and what we were wishing for. Such experienced and professional people. That was really great.
Before you started Fievel is Glauque with Zach, were you working on any other musical projects?
Ma Clément: Yeah, I was singing in this very small band for a few months, but I stopped because it didn’t fit with my taste (laughs). It was a hard rock band—not really my cup of tea. But my first real show with amplified music singing in the mic was with them—the first time I even sang into a mic, in fact, was with them. So I’m grateful that they trusted me and we all had a good experience.
[Zach Phillips appears on Zoom]
Hey, how’s it going Zach?
Zach Phillips: Hi, Jude!
Ma Clément: Hey, Mr. Phillips, how are you? I’m cold, you?
Zach Phillips: I’m okay. It’s raining here. I was out in the rain for a long time. Now I’m really cozy—feet out, got my coffee.
I was just asking Ma about the tour with Stereolab. I read in Post-Trash that they initially reached out to you through email and it went to spam?
Zach Phillips: Yeah, Ma was in town, and we were writing. I had a rehearsal with Alice Cohen’s band, and as I was leaving, I got a message from somebody like, “You’re saying no to Stereolab?” Then I called this guy I barely knew who told me they’d been trying to reach me. I dug through my Gmail spam folder and found one of those emails where, like, when somebody sends you a message through Bandcamp it usually goes to spam. I even have a folder set up and it doesn’t really work. We talked to their manager and we were really scared because we knew it would take over our lives. And it really did. And then we did it. And now we’re back. We all still love each other. It’s hard to imagine doing something like that again any time soon.
What was your personal connection with Stereolab’s music before going on this tour?
Ma Clément: I started listening to their music when we went on this mini tour [in 2019], so it’s connected with Œ and all of those people. Yeah, I don’t remember when it was but they were talking about Stereolab being on a European tour. And I was like, what is this music? So I started to listen to them and I fell in love with their albums. Dots and Loops… to be honest, I was only listening to that album. I was trapped by it and I couldn’t listen to anything else. I went to see them in Brussels at this venue called Le Botanique. It was great.
Zach Phillips: People were comparing my music to Stereolab in 2011 or 2012. I hadn’t heard them then, and for that reason, I deliberately avoided hearing them at all until around that same year [Ma heard them]. It might not have been Dots and Loops for me. It might have been one that’s earlier, like, a concept album or something. Olia Eichenbaum, who played on that tour, was like, “What, you haven’t heard this band? You have to listen to this stuff.” So we listened to the record at her place, and I remember enjoying it.
Zach, I feel like, out of the projects you’ve worked on in the past, Fievel has really garnered a cult following of sorts. There are people reselling God’s Trashmen for like 50 bucks or more on Discogs, and a lot of your opening sets for Stereolab were uploaded in full on YouTube. Why do you think Fievel connected with so many people so quickly?
Zach Phillips: Well, Ma’s really good (laughter). And we’ve had several, just like, killing bands. Sometimes we’re like, we don’t even deserve it.
Ma Clément: We’ve been so lucky.
Zach Phillips: Why would you want to play with us? Why take the time? (laughs). But right now, we’re trying to figure out what to publish next because we have so much stuff, and it’s all in various stages of being finished. But we’ve been talking about like, should it be stuff that’s recorded to Marantz cassette in mono at rehearsal like our first compilation thing that came out? Or should it be another studio session? Or should it be a compilation of different studio material? How should we do it? What is it? Part of that is the fact that people are paying attention, which is actually kind of an impediment. And it’s extremely confusing, because part of me is like, we’ve got to show ’em this particular side of things. I do feel like the kids—and by “kids” I mean a demographic I don’t understand, or know how old they are, just that they’re younger and use technology in ways I don’t understand—really connected with something about the God’s Trashman recordings. And that style of recording is extraordinarily exciting to me. I don’t understand it at all. Ma, you know what I mean. We can do a perfectly great take with everybody playing everything correctly, and It’s just not the right take. No magic whatsoever. And then there’s one with immense problems. Like, there’s some out-of-tune shit, some mistakes, and somehow it’s alive. Sometimes it’s a perfect take that’s alive. But the most important thing is that it feels alive and dynamic. And it’s absolutely mysterious.
Ma Clément: It’s more than just playing the music. It’s more complex than that. It’s the way we connect. It’s a bunch of different things, and it’s layered.
Zach Phillips: Part of the magic of recording to mono cassette is like, look, we could be approaching it like this, like a studio where you have close mics set up on all the sources, and there’s somebody live mixing it to mono, right? Well, that would be interesting, because the mixing would be like a performance. But yeah, it would be fundamentally different from what we have done with the Marantz thing, which is setting up one mic for the band, and one in the Beatles’ setup where you have one vocal mic that’s going to the PA so that the band can monitor the vocals. And that’s being mixed extraordinarily haphazardly with the band signal, right? And this is going to mono cassette, sometimes at half speed because we run out of tape. I had to sprint across Brussels one time because we ran out of batteries for the Marantz. It’s ridiculous!
There’s something heroic about the foolishness of recording in this way. But what I was going to say is that this setup more closely approximates being in the room than the mic’ing in the studio setup. It’s the microphone that’s hearing the band. It’s not on one of those binaural dummy heads, but it’s close to that. It’s like you’re hearing it from a perspective in the room, like you would if you were standing there. And that seems to be something that differentiates it from other styles of recording. I connect with that a lot. There’s a courage to consider something final. It’s risky.
What were the recording sessions like for this new album? I saw that it was recorded over the course of a single day. How did the atmosphere differ from the many separate sessions that made up God’s Trashmen?
Ma Clément: When we were recording those rehearsals on the first album, we didn’t know it would actually become an album. Zach would set up the mics and be like, oh, don’t worry about it. This is not serious. We’ll never use that (laughter). So yeah, so that’s very different from going to the studio and knowing that it might be used to make an album. There’s something more serious, but not in a bad way. We are very, very, very focused on what we are doing. I am. I don’t know about the others, but it feels that everybody’s focused. I am extremely focused on what is happening and trying to be very present for each take because each song is played 10 to 15 times in a row and you record everything. It’s very intense. You need to be present every time because it might be the good take. You’re giving a lot of yourself, of your energy, but also something else. I was extremely tired at the end.
Zach Phillips: I will admit that sometimes my mission in the different recording sessions was something like, get Ma tired. For some reason, I love the way you sing when you’re tired. You’re kind of over it.
Ma Clément: I think it’s because I let go. I’m a control freak about the way that I sing. Everything needs to be under control and perfect, and the way I want it to be. But that’s not life, because life is emotion. You like when I let the emotion take power. I need to turn my brain off, and that’s not an easy task.
Zach Phillips: After the very first time we rehearsed with the group, and I had the Marantz, we recorded, among other things, the version of “Hit Me” that’s now on God’s Trashmen. I remember playing it for you and being like, “Ma, this is the stuff, like, yeah, we’ll go to the studio, but I don’t really even know what that is. Like, this is the stuff right here.” That perspective was challenged by various members of the different bands on the first album, who were like, “No, what are you talking about?” But our friend Chris Weisman and Ryan Power, who played on the first album and mixed Flaming Swords, were both big advocates of, like, “People need to hear this shit, y’know? It’s alive. It sounds great like that.” Ryan was really an exceptional mixing engineer and songwriter and arranger.
As you took these songs on the road over the course of this tour, did you see them evolve or change over time?
Ma Clément: I guess yes, because it’s not the same band playing. And also, we evolved from the first time we played them together. Zach also evolved from the time he first wrote them. The first album is mostly his songs… it’s pretty much all his songs, what am I talking about? (laughs). I just wrote the lyrics to one song, and he asked me to do that. I guess the spirit and identity of the song is still the same—it remains—but the way it feels, it’s like reading a book again. You don’t have the same eyes, the same filters, or the same perceptions.
Zach Phillips: It changes it tremendously, too, to have, you know—we had Gaspard Sicx, who was the drummer on Flaming Swords, so when we did those songs, that anchored it. But we didn’t have Raphaël Desmarets on bass, we had Matt Murphy, who’s an exceptional player. He showed up to our Vermont album session that we did right before the tour and was off page with, like, 15 quite difficult songs. He was blazing insane trails all over the place without a sheet in front of him at all. And he would, like, opine. Somebody would ask, “Is it this kind of thing, or is it more like this,” and he’d be like, “I think it’s this.” He’s impressive.
Andre Sacalxot is also an outrageous mastermind of tonal music, basically. He was playing flute and alto on the tour. And then Quentin Moore, who’s one of my closest friends that I grew up with, is an amazing songwriter and guitarist. He’s on the first album too, but it was really pretty different. But if I’m going to be completely honest, I much prefer—and I think Ma would agree with me here—the old model of how we did things. We would take a batch of 12 to 15 songs, or in the case of Flaming Swords, 20, and rehearse them with a group for a fixed amount of time. Not that many rehearsals, but just enough. Then we’d do a few shows, do a recording session, and record the rehearsals.Then it’s done. Maybe we bring back one or two of the songs later on.
Something I thought was interesting, going back through your earlier discography, Zach, was seeing songs that appeared elsewhere later. I was listening to the album your band Grendel’s Mother did in 2019, and “Unfinding” from God’s Trashmen is on it. And then there was a song on Flaming Swords that Quentin wrote for one of your Jepeto Solutions albums a while back. But I thought it was cool, because some of these songs have had other lives in the past.
Zach Phillips: Yeah, and that’s weird. I don’t know what to think about that. We have to contend with that. It’s tempting to draw a line and say we’re only going to do new stuff that we wrote in the room together. Sometimes things have a way of rising from the grave, or there’s a reason to study it again.
Ma mentioned that God’s Trashmen was mostly your own compositions. What was the difference in writing the songs for Flaming Swords?
Zach Phillips: I moved to Brussels, and Ma and I started writing together. It went really well. I think the second time we wrote together, we wrote “Constantly Rare.” I kind of owe it to her. If we hadn’t written Flaming Swords, I’d probably still be doing legal work right now, which is fine. But I’m teaching these days, and what I’m teaching is essentially organized around a nucleus of the process that Ma and I figured out for writing. This is a process that bears some resemblance to something I was doing with Sarah Smith and Blanche Blanche Blanche for our last album. But it wasn’t until we were in Brussels doing this stuff together that I started to understand, “Oh, this is a really particular procedure and I can understand why this leads to certain results.” Now, you know, we got lucky with so many of the songs. But you know what they say, the harder you work the luckier you are. Ma, how would you explain how we wrote those songs? It’s hard to account for, isn’t it?
Ma Clément: I don’t really understand how it works. There is, as you said, a procedure or protocol that we kind of follow. But we both know that the rules are made to be broken or something. You show up, you meet your music partner, you do this thing, and it kind of works. Then you meet a few days later trying to do the same thing, and it doesn’t work at all. So, you have to think about something that connects to what worked the last time. You think there’s something to take from this experience, but then you have to try something different if it’s not new, to try to make it work. If you’re lucky, it does.
Zach Phillips: Do you write music at all, Jude?
I mess around with it a bit, but not all that seriously.
Ma Clément: Like us!
Zach Phillips: Seriousness isn’t a great point of departure. It’s called “playing” for a reason! But you know, I’ve written music all sorts of ways. The one popular way, I guess, to write songs with a vocal part and all that, is that people will write riffs, patterns, loops, or progressions, sections, structures, etc., and then write a melody to go on top of that, then write lyrics. They might workshop it all a bit, or maybe their band jams together, and they see what comes out of their intuition. That’s one thing that I’ve never been able to do and has never interested me. I’m certain I like a great deal of music that was written that way. But I can also tell when people are writing that way. It reminds me of the division of labor—everybody has a role to play. One might say something works or doesn’t work. I don’t find that to be very art related. What’s at stake is to discover the identity of something that eludes your control, right?
We never, ever sat down and plotted out certain qualities we would hope that something might have. The way that we wrote this stuff concretely might be boring to hear about, so I would limit myself to just saying that it involves fragments that are being mutually decided on sequentially. When it feels like it’s over, it’s over. It happens all at once. Occasionally, there’ll be a snip added later on, or an intro, because many times the process starts and it’s just right out of the gate—there’s a line, a melodic, lyrical line. When people say the songs all sound the same as a criticism, I can kind of understand that, but it’s the same difference. It’s the same difference from more prevalent ways of writing. Not to toot our own horn, but part of the reason why we’ve been able to attract such outrageously good players to work with us on this stuff, aside from the factors of like, friendship, and love, is because it’s actually kind of unusual music to learn how to play. People who are extraordinarily good, who are way better than me and more disciplined on their instruments by a factor of 10 will be like, “huh.” I like to be challenged, musicians like to be challenged, and Ma likes to be challenged.
Ma Clément: A bit (laughter).
Zach Phillips: If there’s a goal, melodically… the melodies that naturally occur to the ear tend to be beautiful, if you really follow your ear. They can tend toward chromaticism, but our ears, speaking schematically and generally, as a matter of cultural programming and some mysterious mathematical, proportional implications from the way tonal music is set up through these instruments and systems, tend to have integrity and have diatonic characteristics. That means sticking to a scale, at least for little fragments at a time. And that’s why this fragment-by-fragment approach has worked for us really well. It’s the harmony that’s a weird shifting landscape. The melodies are fairly ear-friendly.
Ma, I read in Post-Trash that you were obsessed with Blue Bell Knoll by the Cocteau Twins as a teenager. Elizabeth Fraser’s lyrics are sort of dreamy and impressionistic—you don’t really derive literal meaning from them as much as the delivery. Do you take a similar approach when you’re writing your vocal parts or something else entirely?
Ma Clément: That’s a hard question. I don’t really think about it when we write. I’m very shy, as you’ve noticed. I’m still impressed every time we write, so Zach has to work to help me feel confident and trust myself enough to just sing the first few notes that come out of my head. I’m not fully conscious when we write, I have to confess. I’m not fully here. It’s like I’m trying to go out of the room.
Zach Phillips: But your will is so strong when we write.
Ma Clément: Yeah. I’m certain about what I like. I mean what I say and what I think.
Zach Phillips: That’s something that I really like about writing with you. Your “no” is very strong. Sometimes, especially with melodies and harmonies, everything is really mutual. There’s no, like, “Great! The melody’s done, here’s the chords.” “Oh, that’s great!” No, it’s painful. There’s a sense that we use each other to play the role of auditor. It becomes uninteresting to do something that you would do. Like, “That’s something I would say. That’s a belief I would have. That’s an idea I would employ.” We have an ethic of suspicion that we visit on ourselves and each other during writing. It’s frustrating at times. There’s a feeling of, like, what the fuck should we do?
Ma Clément: I don’t have the feeling that I am writing, I have the feeling that we are writing. We’re really next to each other because we’re sitting next to each other in this space, but we are both on this path trying to figure out where we’re going while we’re going there. Yes, sometimes someone is a small step ahead, so there’s small guidance to go there, but then you’re back on the same line and it’s all about moving together. That’s how I feel. So to answer your question about my writing, I don’t know if I can exclude Zach from the process. I wrote only one song by myself. Okay, two songs.
Zach Phillips: You’re gonna write more! That’s another thing. I don’t know how you feel, Ma, but like, this attention we’ve been getting is exciting, and it’s good to feel like capacities will be expanded so that we have more to offer people we work with. That’s a big motivation, to be able to pay musicians we work with better and to maybe carve out more time to work on stuff and worry less about the money it takes to fly across the world. It’s all very exciting. But I don’t really identify with any of this finished work. I feel like a listener and a technician. I think we feel like we have a technical relationship with the work and we know a bit more about how it came about and how to deal with it and what it wants than an outside party who hasn’t played the music and wasn’t there when it was written. But that’s how I would put it. We were there when it was written. And I don’t look at the stuff we’ve done together, or the stuff I’ve done on my own, and think, “Oh, my work, our work.” It’s a goal to become surprised and feel like something emerged that wasn’t willed. Then, there’s a lot of design and work to represent the songs and what’s collected that we’re all involved in—Ma and I alongside the rest of the band. It’s not hierarchical, and we’re all a part of the design and representation process. But who is involved in the writing process? We were just there when it happened.
Looking back at the pre-Fievel period, Zach, I first became aware of your work through stuff released on various tape labels back in the mid 2010s. I think the first thing I heard was Recorded in Hell, because I was really into Lillerne Tapes. And I feel like some of your early stuff was really associated with cassettes and cassette labels, and your own label OSR was putting out a bunch of tapes. Do you feel a specific affinity towards tapes as a medium or are they just a medium?
Zach Phillips: Um, no (laughs). Ma, have you heard that album? It’s extremely embarrassing.
Ma Clément: I might have but there are so many. Good for you, right?
Zach Phillips: Yeah. Tape. What can be said about tape?
Ma Clément: We love them!
Zach Phillips: They’re affable. They’re nice. They’re good. They’re nice little petrochemical things.
Ma Clément: I like that they’re not pretentious. It’s a cool object. It’s humble. But it carries the music. It does the job in a humble way. I like it.
Zach Phillips: It’s more of a canvas than digital. If you paint on a canvas like Ma has done and I have not, it has a texture. It’s not like Photoshop. It’s a real object with texture and gradations. My affinity to tape stuff is like, I was working full-time at a legal job when I started getting more involved in recording. I was super inspired by Chris Wesiman, Kurt Weisman, and Ruth Garbus in Brattleboro, Vermont, where I was living, and wanted to play that really hard game they were playing. I tried recording on the computer, but it sucked, and I had been on the computer often at work. I have had a four track since I was in high school, and I was like, I’m gonna learn how to use this thing. There are specific things that can happen when you’re working on multitrack tape, for example, that are just procedurally different. It’s not really the sonic difference, and I’ve never been an aesthete that’s into the tape-y sound. It’s material. We both have a materialist perspective about stuff. It’s about tools and procedures, not sound.
Ma Clément: I’m thinking about the plugins you can install on your computer that make your digital recordings sound like tapes (laughter).
Zach, what was your favorite stop on the tour with Stereolab?
Zach Phillips: We played a studio called Altamira Sound in Los Angeles, and that was an amazing show.
Ma Clément: That wasn’t part of the Stereolab tour, though, right?
Zach Phillips: Right, that was one of our off days. I bet we’ll say the same thing, though, which is the Purple Rain venue, which is, by no coincidence, independently owned and operated. It’s not a part of an immense corporate conglomerate. We felt taken care of there and it was a great show. Exceptional sound. And we were at our most tired that day, so it was very welcome. Detroit was cool, too, but that was more because of the audience than the venue.
Ma Clément: I also felt that the Fillmore was great. The sound on stage was really cool.
Now that the tour is over and your record’s out, what have you been doing? Have you been completely decompressing or working on new stuff?
Ma Clément: I needed a break. So, I came back and two days later, I had to move all of my stuff into a new flat. I was still jet-lagged. Then I had to work a bit and go see my family for family stuff. Then I came back and I took some time off. But yeah, musically speaking, I’ve been working a bit, but mostly learning. It’s not writing. I’m trying to play some keyboard, even though I’m not very good. I’m figuring out what I want to do. I want Zach to come here so that we can work on some stuff.
Zach Phillips: I want to go there! Me, I’ve been completely fucked up. I’ve been sick twice. Once with strep and once with the flu. I haven’t been incredibly healthy. I’ve been somewhat depressed. But I’m rising out of it and I’m trying to get back into music. I lost a lot of charts for a bunch of songs that I want to learn to play, so I’ve been transcribing my own songs, which has been humbling. I’ve been learning some Eduardo Mateo music and doing some technical Fievel chores. I believe that we both need to write individually and we need to do it together in person. It will happen. I can feel it coming on, and I’ll be in Brussels in a couple of months to get down to it.
Ma Clément: Good! I’m excited.
Zach Phillips: The weight of the past oppresses all of us for reasons that are completely extramusical. You mentioned Recorded In Hell. How did that get made? I just wrote a bunch of stuff, decided how it would be recorded live. It’s boring, but it’s some tape procedure I only did on that album. Live recordings of vocals and piano processed in a weird way. That’s how I’m comfortable working. It’s like, writing a bunch of stuff, and then making a decision about how to represent it as a group, recording it, and then moving on.
Fievel is way out of my comfort zone. It’s a huge learning experience to try to have things so open-ended. We have 60 songs recorded in all sorts of ways that haven’t been released. Oh my god, it’s oppressive to think about. It really makes me want to write because the last thing that I want to deal with is finishing this stuff. But that’s one mood. And a different mood is to clear the plate. Like, “let’s chip away at this stuff. This is quite good. Oh, I love that.” You know? It’s exhausting. Wouldn’t it be so fucking sweet if we were just, like, “The past is the past, only the writing we begin now will make it?” That would be incredibly freeing, but it’s not going to happen.
Ma Clément: Aw, I was kind of wishing for that (laughs). Hm, I was in denial for a while. We just have to deal with it. It’s very scary. It’s so big. It’s like horses—it’s just the size that’s scary, not even the content. I’m scared of horses.
Zach Phillips: They’re very imposing.
Fievel is Glauque’s Flaming Swords is out now on MATH Interactive.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share thoughts on albums and assign them a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Nighte - Pin down the dust (Mappa, 2022)
Press Release info: “Pin Down The Dust'' is the first meeting of Nighte - Christina Carter (Charalambides) and Mari Maurice (more eaze) - and it feels both automatic and natural. The collaboration stems from a spontaneous decision by the duo to start playing together weekly. “That's how this music was made,” explains Carter, “with gut feeling as the guiding principle. Mari understands the music I've made on such a deep level that playing with her feels so natural.”
The result of this meeting is inarguably some of the most beautiful music to ever emerge from either Carter or Maurice. The structures are spacious, generous, and gentle, with scraped violin strings and seemingly ancient moans strewn sparingly like falling leaves on a picnic blanket. Having begun life as freeform interplays between the duo recorded live at Maurice’s house, overdubs were later added and the material mixed by Maurice alone into finalised pieces.
Purchase Pin down the dust at Bandcamp.
Gil Sansón: Not having heard the unmistakable voice of Christina Carter in a while, Pin down the dust comes at just the right moment for me. Here she works with More Eaze, who provides varied and understated instrumentation. The natural fragility of Carter’s voice is highlighted in their contrasting parts, and for long stretches of time her voice carries all melodic weight while the accompaniment is gentle noise and subdued timbres—it’s more texture than counterpoint. The musicality in these choices is nevertheless evident, and my ear is seduced by how gentle and calmly assured it all sounds. Carter and More Eaze don’t want to pull at your sleeve for attention; they’re two artists who are creating only for themselves.
There’s a level of sophistication that, combined with the rough approach, makes Pin down the dust irresistible. It sounds like what it is: improvised music by artists who found a lode to explore—there’s no rush, no excessive ambition. It’s halfway through the album when we hear a clean guitar, and thus to the sort of accompaniment that most commonly contextualized Carter’s voice. But even here, More Eaze’s strong musical voice takes it to a new level, almost like a cross between Joni Mitchell at her most abstract and late-era Mark Hollis. Freeform and fleeting, with songs steering away from structure and flowing with a deceptively wide range of timbres, this may very well be my favorite album I’ve heard with Carter’s voice. It feels witnessing a natural phenomenon.
Marshall Gu: There are a few moments where Christina Carter hits a high, heavenly note in perfect harmony over Mari Maurice’s instrumental backing—in particular, the climax of “destined” feels like a genuine release when she sings what sounds like “somehow” over and over. For the most part though, I walk away empty. Certainly, no images stick to mind despite song titles that read like scraps of would-be poems: stars, lullabies, heartaches, a tornado rendered less hostile because it’s friends with the sunset. The press release mentions “falling leaves on a picnic blanket,” and I get no such luxury. The majority of this album feels like vocals and instrumentals alternatively in search of each other—or in search of an actual song. Such is the nature of improvisation, of course, but I never get the feeling that Carter and Maurice have developed a telepathic bond that makes so much free exploration so breathtaking to listen to. For me, experimental vocal music—especially where the vocals are the center, and paradoxically even more so when words are eschewed—can be extremely intimate as I watch (listen) to someone channel something deep from within themselves. But there’s something deeply cold about this album, and considering the heart on the cover, the words “sweet star” and such, I don’t think it was meant to be that temperature.
H.D. Angel: A title like Pin Down the Dust makes an exciting proposition about an album’s creative process, suggesting moments where serendipitous beauty arises from nowhere. The pieces here rarely make an impression on that level. Mari Maurice and Christina Carter work within a familiar, staid set of gestures, although the degree of care in their arrangement gets them at least some of the way to substance. The album is at its best when the recording itself seems to be involved in the search for beauty, rather than simply bearing witness to a you-just-had-to-be-there interplay between two musicians. “hot star” is its centerpiece and high point: the boundaries between player, player and listener dissolve into an embryonic sea of textures, and Maurice’s space-age synth tones essentially yassify the album, interrupting its mannered atmosphere to abruptly heighten all of the alien details that would have been easy to ignore otherwise. It’s a great moment, and it reminds me of recent faves from ulla or Sig Nu Gris in how it uses scattered, human incompleteness to invite us into something greater than ourselves. On paper, this kind of juxtaposition could be compared to the artists’ past experiments in genre and taste—More Eaze’s hyperpop dalliances might come to mind. But one of Pin Down the Dust’s unexpected virtues is how anonymous it comes off despite Carter and Maurice’s established stylistic reputations, giving them a chance to tap into the sublime largely on the strength of the music itself, without the baggage of oeuvre or identity. Still, this album soothes more than it surprises, and seems more rewarding to have made than it is to listen to.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Pin down the dust made most sense to me while wearing Arielle Shoshana’s Sunday, a stirring and introspective lactonic fragrance that’s meant to evoke the smell of matcha horchata. I didn’t make the association right away—it was only after I spent more time with its swirling constellation of green tea, rice, milk, and cardamom that I began to recognize anything resembling a soothing beverage. That uncoupling → coupling process feels apt for an album like this, one that places Christina Carter’s voice in a sonic landscape that’s both familiar (the nocturnal, noodling guitars of “destined”) and new (alongside More Eaze’s manipulated vocals and fractured electronics). There’s a lovely mystique in Carter’s singing as she floats above these fluttering sounds. It’s partly about sincerity, but more about warmth. I distinctly thought of my mother, and how I could sense compassion in her recent gestures and words that, while different, recall specific portrayals of love from my childhood. Pin down the dust has that exact sort of confidence, of knowing that your relationship with someone has evolved through the increasing comforts in their presence. I feel that most on “sweet star” and “lullaby of heartache,” which provide moments of unspoken 3AM bliss, content to simply be and revel in the moment. Though Carter is more in the lineage of Patty Waters, my experience with this felt—at least in spirit—more like listening to Julie London’s late ’60s material after knowing her ’50s work for so long. It’s the genuine surprise and delight in realizing someone you love has even more sides to them, is prismatic in a way you never anticipated.
Jinhyung Kim: Having (over-)heard the work of “emo ambient” folks like Claire Rousay and More Eaze, little on Nighte’s Pin down the dust comes as a surprise. On sugary tracks like “sweet star,” “crossing the dome,” “destined,” and “lullaby of heartache,” Christina Carter’s voice weaves in and out of a diaphanous tapestry of sound that Mari Maurice delicately mobilizes over several minutes, gradually layering in instrumental filigree that enriches the music’s chordal center. Carter’s high and sharp intonation often pierces through and intersects with Maurice’s tapestries, providing a pleasant (and at times, unpredictable) counterpoint to what would otherwise be an above-average snoozefest. “hot star” and “sunset tomato” are notable as forays into free improv—fuzzy electroacoustics in tandem with more conventional string/reed/voice noodlin’. But this lack of structure, ironically, dissolves the tension that the same sonic palette is capable of producing on other songs here (in their tonal or ambient contexts); it just doesn’t sound that different from most free improv. What frustrates me most about Pin down the dust is how meaningless all its details and variations ultimately feel: its art lies in how all sounds, no matter how disparate or diverse in origin, are woven into a vibe-y ether—whether synchronically (by layering) or diachronically (via gestural repetitions). Carter, in her interlocutions with Maurice’s soundscapes, interjects much-welcome moments of dissonance, occasionally even drawing attention to tensions already present in an instrumental. But don’t ask her to single-handedly pull this album away from emo ambient’s inexorable homogenization toward vibes.
Deng Boyu - 《Inertion》 (OTOROKU, 2022)
Press Release info: Originally from Inner Mongolia, Deng Boyu has been active in the Chinese music underground since the late 1990s. His work spans numerous genres, as a drummer, solo electronics artist, improviser and collaborator to many musicians both in and out of China, including Mamer, Lao Dan, Lee Ranaldo, Marc Ribot, Akira Sakata, Theresa Wong and Federico Casagrande. Having hosted two of his releases on our site through the Old Heaven and Dusty Ballz labels, we're delighted to present《Inertion》on our in-house OTOroku imprint.
There is an almost dizzying restlessness here, covering more ground in 20 minutes than most would manage in a triple LP. The result is anything but scattershot, however. Instead, Deng crafts a collagic density consisting of myriad reference points all competing for space.
There can be no neat outcome - these are not clues to decipher. Instead, Deng builds around these competing approaches; tongue-in-cheek modern jesterisms versus considered sincerity; minimalist arrangements brushing up against maximalist sound; structured craft and tonal dissonance - not coming down on one side or the other but revelling in the clash. You might not have time to get comfortable but it’s a compelling and compulsive place to be.
Purchase 《Inertion》at the OTOROKU website.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Deng Boyu’s had a chameleonic career: he’s played drums in rock bands like Wu Tiao Ren and Dawanggang, which draw from various folk traditions; he’s played jazz in various contexts, most notably with flautist/saxophonist Lao Dan; and he’s made whirring noise records, as on last year’s Tractor Academy. With Inertion he extends his boundaries even further, making craggy landscapes out of electronic blips, fizzling noise, and droning metal excursions. The brevity of these 18 minutes makes the searing energy all the more potent, and his varied approaches to the cacophony prevent this from devolving into pure tedium. I like that “Like Blade of Grass” sounds like a fuzzed-out jam session with traditional percussion, while the title track strides along before a floor-to-ceiling onslaught of guitar riffage patiently washes over you. More than most of Deng’s output, this one has me itching to see him live.
Marshall Gu: Every sound you hear on “Her Eyes Have Lost Their Luster” is sonic death, like witnessing tones struggling to survive in a digital wasteland. Every time Deng Boyu switches out one sound and introduces another, it isn’t “abrupt,” it’s apoptosis: that tone has simply reached the end of its natural lifecycle. In this context, the guitar that takes up the second half of the song isn’t a solo so much as it is a scream: the last gasp before fading. Spanning over 10 minutes, it’s a patient unraveling, and that’s what the other two tracks lack. “Like Blade of Grass” brings in a pummeling percussion and is not particularly evocative beyond that, while the title track is just more of “Her Eyes Have Lost Their Luster” but with a doomy guitar finale for its anti-solo, and by that point I’m just tapped out of Industrial Lynchian Dread. But for 10 minutes out of this short release, Deng commands my attention with lurching bass notes, machinery flickering out and a guitar that’s been lit on fire.
Gil Sansón: Something I’ve noticed about experimental artists coming from China is how sonically uncompromising they tend to be. They also like to tease the listener into a false sense of security before employing a jump scare or a long patch of rough noise. Deng Boyu brings a rock sensibility to this realm, suggesting one-man Caspar Brötzmann Massaker or The Dead C. There’s a ritualistic aspect about the album, with the guitar becoming percussive atop some rather nasty electronics screaming in pain. Harsh, vital, and with an aura of mystery, Inertion does in 18 minutes what many albums fail to achieve at twice the length; the balance between harsh noise, hermetic ceremony, and compositional concerns works well, and the music concludes with doom metal proper, the shift feels natural and unforced, granting is a nice, dramatic conclusion.
H.D. Angel: As a drummer, Deng Boyu must appreciate the pleasure principle. Keep the beat locked in, and you’ll keep people sated; withhold it, for a syncopated half-second or an improvisational minute-and-a-half, and you’ll leave them begging for it to return. Deprive the listener for long enough, and any timbre might start to suggest a rhythmic pulse, any happenstance repetition the sweet relief of stability. Four minutes and twenty-four seconds into “Her Eyes Lost Their Luster,” there’s a percussive triplet scrape. It’s an instantly habit-forming cue, the kind a different artist might use to power up a Jersey club track or as a weapon-reload sound effect in an FPS. The way it pierces through the bleak stasis of the previous four minutes, I expect it to loop, setting the track’s tension on an upward, martial climb. But Deng won’t give me the satisfaction. Instead, he teases it, peppering the rest of the track with a weaker version of just the first hit of the triplet, bringing the full three back at 5:10, and then never doing it again. I’m left with a steady advance that’s never steady enough, as electroacoustic bleeps and guitar noise vie for territory under uncertain rhythmic rule.
A bio found alongside Deng’s 2012 album Wild Air Waves describes him as “addicted to the building of minimalist atmosphere,” and this fun characterization helps make sense of his newest album’s engineering. Each figure Deng introduces on Inertion seems to seethe with unfulfilled desire, scrabbling to find some way to justify its own existence. This ecological pressure is what keeps the album from collapsing into irrelevance like so much noodly, endless-possibilities electronic music does—every idea needs you to listen to it, in the same way a suffocating person needs to breathe. Even when things don’t quite work, like in the more well-behaved bustle of “Like Blade of Grass”, I want them to work so bad that I’m still interested. In the final minute of “Inertion,” Deng purges the album’s unease by invoking the staggering riffage of metal, maybe the most “here’s exactly what you want, you little bitch” genre ever. Pulling “cathartic” out of the thesaurus feels like cheating.
Vincent Jenewein: Inertion’s first track starts with nothing but a low, sustained drone—is this one of those records? Help, I’m in danger of falling asleep!!! zzzzz .... zzzzz .... zzzzzzz ... Ohhh! I’m being awakened by a quick, sharp, loud burst of noise that appeared out of nowhere. Then, a random array of piercing sine bleeps and what sounds like a door creaking, then some kind of broken answering machine on the left, descending tones with ugly pitch envelopes on the right. Later—randomly, but also expectedly—a bunch of feedback and distortion: chrhrhchzzzr. Deng Boyu tricked me. It’s not one of those records, it’s one of those records. And by that I mean, it’s one of those that’s hellbent on annoying you with entirely unpredictable sequences of unpleasant, annoying sounds, until you relent and go “it’s experimental, aight—7/10.”
While Inertion is classic annoycore and not breaking any boundaries in its genre, it is a very solid entry. Do I enjoy listening to this? Hell no. But there is something captivating about how a record like this interrupts and disrupts regular listening habits and attention patterns. Nothing makes sense, nothing flows, everything’s annoying, but somehow, I’m not turning it off. Perhaps what we need is an analytic of the annoying. Not I can’t (the sublime), but I’d rather not (the annoying): Deng Boyu, I’d rather not you assault my ear with unpredictable bursts of noise, bleeps, and feedback. But somehow, there’s a devilish joy in this. One of the later tracks has a cacophony so unpleasant and bizarre, I couldn't help but giggle. It’s a specific kind of annoying—not that person you hate blabbering on about stupid things, but a manic kid high on sugar hitting you with a blow-up hammer three hundred times. There’s no narrative, nothing to disassemble. Chaotic evil, purely for the thrill of it. That said, records like this are single-use. The thrill is gone by the second listen, when you already know what to expect. But this stuff doesn’t seem too hard to make, so please send more my way!
Joshua Bonnetta - Innse Gall (Shelter Press, 2022)
Press Release info: Innse Gall (The Islands of the Strangers) is a companion piece to the film An Dà Shealladh (The Two Sights); a sound-forward documentary that cinematically re-connects the disappearing Gaelic oral tradition of the Outer Hebrides to its surroundings. The accompanying LP explores the shifting acoustic ecology of the islands interwoven fragments of dialogue, song, and industry.
These two compositions were developed from studies made for the soundtrack of the film using the same elements: hydrophone and field recordings collected on the islands of Barra, Berneray, North Uist, Harris, & Lewis between 2017-19, collaged and assembled in Ithaca, New York 2017-20.
Purchase Innse Gall at Bandcamp.
Matthew Blackwell: The Two Sights is about three senses. Hearing is just as important as vision or the “second sight” that the film’s narrators discuss. Throughout the documentary, we’re made to connect what we see and what we hear with what might happen next, in a mediated representation of what the residents of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides describe doing for centuries. The first scene sees Bonnetta set up a microphone while an interviewee states that “you could call it for a better name the sight by ear.” Audial premonitions abound, as with the woman who heard firefighters trying to save her house years before it burned down. These voiceovers are paired with beautiful images that suggest, rather than illustrate, their stories.
The natural environment of the islands that Bonnetta visits provides dramatic material for Innse Gall, but much of it can be found in other field recording pieces. Waves crash, birds sing, and wind rattles. The most interesting moments are repeated from the film, as when certain narrators reappear to speak (or whistle, as the case may be). As important as listening is to his project, the evocative visions of the Scottish landscape in The Two Sights still carry much of Bonnetta’s message, and Innse Gall struggles to retain an inherent interest without them. Luckily, the album comes with a download of the film, so do watch it first. After having seen The Two Sights, Innse Gall is a fantastic way to revisit its haunting world, with the film’s enchanting visuals replaying in your mind like a second sight.
[6 before seeing The Two Sights; 8 after seeing The Two Sights]
Joshua Minsoo Kim: It is a marvel to watch Joshua Bonnetta’s The Two Sights and come away knowing it is one of very few ethnographic documentaries that understands how to use sound and image to capture the phenomenological reality of its subject matter. As with any sort of documentation presented as art, there is an unending battle between ethical (re)presentation and artistic liberty, but Bonnetta accomplishes both. The key is not in finding ways to position oneself (e.g. as an insider), but to simply reveal aspects of people and places that honor their lived realities. When listening to Innse Gall, I thought of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps and how she made deliberate attempts to 1) understand the people in a locale, 2) include their voices and stories within her works, and 3) make clear the symbiotic yet evolving relationships between humans and nature. With a lush collage of field recordings, Bonnetta merges people’s voices and songs with an identifiable space; it’s less about “foregrounding” these Scottish folks than having them feel integral to this living environment. And while I’m not completely sure of what every spoken or sung word suggests (Innse Gall is less direct than, say, A Sound Map of the Danube), I start to understand the “second sight” that his film repeatedly captures. For me, it’s less about having psychic powers to tell the future, but about the importance of embedding oneself in their surroundings, and how sound can be a crucial entryway for doing so.
Gil Sansón: Field recording-based composition is so common nowadays that for many artists, having a concept or narrative structure is seen as a way to differentiate oneself from the morass of hydrophone recordings, location recordings of wind, and documents of urban environments that become “dense and oppressive sonic landscapes of modern dystopia.” When sound artists work with these overused elements but have something to say, it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bonnetta uses recordings here that were captured for his film The Two Sights, which is about the Gaelic language in oral tradition as used in the outer Hebrides. Naturally, we mostly hear water, wind, seagulls, motor boats and most importantly, people speaking in Gaelic and English. The prosody of Gaelic is what non-speakers will take away from listening, along with the environmental sounds. As we’re dealing with the album and not the film, it’s probably better to not have seen it and have a full acousmatic experience. Despite being professionally recorded, Innse Gall doesn’t feel hyperrealist—in fact, there’s a sort of emotional distance to some of the recordings, with the speaking voices feeling like field recordings and not so much testimonials or interviews, balancing the human experience with the cold and forlorn environment. The wheel is not being reinvented here, and while some cynics will see this as yet another Presque Rien iteration, I enjoyed this album and the invisible compositions behind it.
H.D. Angel: When scuba diving, you navigate in 360 degrees. It’s incredibly freeing to have that level of input into your position in space, to rise and fall just by inhaling and exhaling, and it gives you a new feel for how your body is situated in the world. But nothing has ever made me feel as profoundly alone as flailing my limbs against the force of a current and getting no output at all. You also can’t communicate with sound underwater, because sound waves propagate four times faster, so human ears can’t tell what direction they come from. The scariest realization that came when I was once briefly stranded 100 feet below the surface of the Atlantic, banging on my air tank, was that all anyone else could hear was an ambient clang; I could be anywhere.
I thought about these experiences often while watching Joshua Bonnetta’s The Two Sights, and especially while listening to its companion album Innse Gall. In the film, Bonnetta studies the disappearing tradition of “second sight” in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, with a James Benning-esque attention to how the stories of his interview subjects bleed through to the world around them and reformat it, how their points of view render time fluid against the landscape. His ethnography is sound-oriented, treating his interviewees and the ambient culture of the islands with equal reverence. But whereas The Two Sights guides the viewer through a grounding, patient series of shots of the Hebrides, drawing attention to individual threads of oral history, Bonnetta unmoors the sounds of Innse Gall from this linear structure, asking us to make our own framing—just as we see him do in the film’s opening shot, where he sets up a camera in silhouette, situating himself within the work.
Water holds Bonnetta’s entire project together, not just as a narrative device (the film includes anecdotes from scuba divers who investigated placeless, auditory omens heard by those with the second sight) or even as a mechanical one (much of the work was recorded with hydrophones, and you can nearly always hear the vast infinity of the ocean) but as an overarching aesthetic principle. There’s no clear distinction between land, sea, lake and air, between humans and nature, between field recording and interview—these sounds flow into each other from all directions. In its negation of its strict 2-D visual referents, Bonnetta’s sound collage can submerge itself in the three-dimensional flow of life in the Hebrides, getting extra mileage out of its ideas in a way that’s productive, but not overly comprehensive. The listener’s place at the center is not arbitrary—the album was curated and arranged carefully, and Bonnetta makes this clear—but it is not fixed, either. Apprehending that freedom is a quiet, difficult thrill.
Thank you for reading the eighty-ninth issue of Tone Glow. Shout out horses.
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