self released, 2012, DD album, 46m 10s
Barren Waste are a band of many guises. They first came to my attention as a metal band with a raw and uncompromising attitude to noise, and a willingness to explore harsh frequencies and creative dissonance, rather than slipping easily into the language of sludge or grindcore. They also, as witnessed by this album, have a penchant for electronic music of an experimental bent. Furthermore, their Bandcamp page offers twenty releases from this year alone, most of a substantial length. Sadly, their guitarist has gone his own way, due to creative differences, which means I won’t get to hear the unification of these apparently disparate approaches quite as soon as I would have liked; but speaking as a listener who finds equal satisfaction in the abstractions of experimental music and the visceral force of heavy music, it’s very pleasing to find a band willing to engage with varied musical languages under a single project name.
NSE consists of two tracks, each in excess of twenty minutes long, which combine the de-objectified aesthetic of ambient with the tonal continuity of drone, while giving more than a nod towards the generative structures of Minimalism. Although it sounds to me as though these noises were all synthesised, they also have an aleatory quality (and outright mimicry of environmental sound) which I hear as a direct reference to the tradition of field recordings in sound art and experimental music. There are cut-up fragments of piano phrases, almost-rhythmic articulations of something in transition between a stringed instrument and the ghosts of a radio dial, robotic birds, air movements, and even straightforward synth noises. There are elements that function as drones, and there are extended passages of granular discontinuity. There is never any sense of a regular pulse, or of an unambiguous tonal centre. What’s consistent throughout is the approximate frequency balance of the mix, the dynamic level (which varies noticeably, but mainly between very quiet, and unassuming), and the atmosphere.
Given that there are often coherent tones present, and that they are not shoehorned into a tonal framework, the feel of this music is frequently a bit on the spooky side. The dissonances are not extreme; in fact, there is little about this music that could be called extreme, aside from its commitment to creativity; but the lack of a consonant, affirmative tonality, gives the music a rootless feel. There is a slight anxiety to these sounds, an ominous sense of possibility, a dystopian darkness hiding in the bright dazzle of its high frequency timbre. There is also a great sense of movement in space, and the image that kept recurring for me was of a giant advertising blimp, drifting at night through the cityscape canyons of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. There are moments of coherence and consonance in here, tiny motes of sound like the particular meaningful utterances of alienated subjects in a vast urban dystopia, and although NSE may have meant anything to its authors, to me it strongly signalled such a milieu.
Any such literal association is missing the point, of course. Although the music certainly conjured, for me, an analogous ambience to Blade Runner, it’s important to bear in mind that although music may be representation, it is perhaps unique among art forms in representing only itself. This music evokes a place, it creates an atmosphere and constructs a soundworld, and any inferences we may make are only useful inasmuch as they assist the listener to enter that soundworld. Barren Waste are nor getting up in our faces and shouting at us here, but the music on this album is full of event and variation in detail, should you choose to listen closely; it is also full of edgy low-key drama, should you choose to simply drift with it. If you do both, it’s a singularly satisfying experience. There’s an impressive degree of sonic craft on display here, and a keen awareness of the interesting experiences to be mined around the margins of overlapping artistic practices.