The Echelon Effect – Field Recordings (post-rock/ ambient)

Posted on November 30, 2012


self released, 2012, DD album, 26m 52s

£0+ (name your price)

The development and inheritance of stylistic traditions is rarely as linear or orderly as is commonly imagined; the evolution of art seems to follow a process of cultural selection analogous to the biological processes identified by Charles Darwin. In art, as in nature, developmental processes diverge, converge, intersect and run parallel in unpredictable ways; just as convergent evolution produces mammals that look exactly like fish, so the pursuit of particular creative inclinations within a broad tradition can lead to rock music that sounds like ambient music, or even Field Recordings. Conversely, the body of artistic practices commonly classified as ‘post-rock’ diverges quite radically at its extremes, with heavy guitars and mathy complexity at one pole, contemplative soundscapes and textured simplicity at the other. On one level, this highlights the futility of attempts to classify art systematically, but only, as with the biological world, if we reify our system of classification into some kind of intrinsic quality we expect to find structurally determining the forms we encounter; if we remember not to take that shit too seriously, the questions classification was intended to answer remain worthy of investigation, and in this case, shed some light on the way musical meanings move from work to work, within practices and traditions. Ultimately it’s necessary to hear the sound in hand, and not to let your awareness of its developmental antecedence colour your affective response, beyond the clues it may give regarding the construction of the authorial subject. In other words, don’t hear this as ‘rock’ or ‘ambient’ because of the genre label I’ve written at the top, but hear it as a sound, structured by the signifying conventions of the various stylistic traditions it touches upon, with an emotional impact determined by your own accumulation of associations, physical and cultural.

This album is called Field Recordings; field recordings are central to its sound and its meanings. Its six tracks are full of textural harmonic materials, some few explicit rhythmic statements, and broad, immersive atmospheres, but all of these elements are structured around ambiences captured en plein air by six collaborators; whether that implies one recordist per track is not made clear, and indeed there are many questions that could usefully be asked regarding the creative process and the relationship between the field recordings and the compositional elements of the album. The answers to those questions are not volunteered on The Echelon Effect’s website however, and it doesn’t fall to me to probe such matters as a reviewer, just to interpret what comes my way (digging up more would be journalism, an activity that I’m far too lazy to engage in for free…) Ambiguity is the name of the game (art, that is), and the meanings of this music are clearly intended to ring truest without any detailed explanations to make them seem denotational or representational.

Although this music is very clearly concerned with atmosphere and ambience, there is much about it that invites a more traditional response, and foregrounds melodic form. For one thing, there’s quite a lot of hard attack to its melodic materials, with piano, a metallic idiophone (glockenspiel perhaps?) and a guitar expounding trance-like ostinatos through ‘Tracking Aeroplanes’, for example. For another, harmonies are phrased in a confirmational, tonal manner, moving away from the tonic only to visit the tenser regions of its immediate diatonic neighbourhood, and never leaving the listener in any doubt as to which way home lies. There are also elements that more obviously signal ‘ambient music’, such as soft, enveloping pads, and a sense of static modality that prevails even when the harmony is at its most discursive. In ‘Antenna’ the field recording becomes an instrument, processed or just layered (it’s impossible to know which without knowing what was recorded under what circumstances), and foregrounded in a way that seems a disturbing reversal of its texture as background. Percussion is introduced in ‘Call To Ground’, and comes to dominate the following piece, ‘Outer Marker’. Both tracks still resist narrative interpretations, despite their clear marking of time, suggesting a rhythmic cyclicity that extends outwards beyond the limited frame they present to us.

The final track is titled ‘The Brightest Star You See Is My Wingtip Over Your Home’; given the generally aviation themed track titles, and the sound of the field recordings, I find myself wondering if the field in question was an airfield. I still feel it’s best to know no more than the artist chooses to give us; the ambiguity suggests we should not take any particular issue or area as the music’s literal subject, but light aircraft humming in a summer sky above a rural airstrip seem a compatible symbol to my personal emotional response. The sense of that breathtaking achievement, the conquest of the shackles of mass, seen at a distance great enough to erase the dirty, noisy, complicated signs of its means, is a good analogue to Field Recordings: this music swoops and flows majestically, carrying the listener, immersing them, but not forcing itself upon them. The pervasive sense of distance makes the ‘action’ remote, and simultaneously places it within the listener’s compass, its entirety played out on a stage where the largest gestures are rendered intimate by perspective, and the smallest are lost in the haze.

It’s very difficult to be clever about music like this: there are no cheap tricks, and there is no possibility of dazzling the audience with spectacle. If they are interested enough in a music of mood and atmosphere to listen for more than a few minutes, they are unlikely to be impressed by anything other than the depth and complexity of its emotional impact. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that music like this could be made without sincerity, through the exercise of pure composerly artifice, but I can’t imagine why anyone would bother; although there is no literal meaning in an affective utterance, no guarantee of equivalence between the speaker’s feeling and the receiver’s, the emotional weight that listening to Field Recordings engendered in me left me in no doubt as to the depth of feeling that informed its making. It’s the product of much purposefully directed musical craft, a great deal of skill in the service of clearly articulating the deeply felt: and that is as rewarding a creative agenda as I can imagine, for musician or listener.


Posted in: Music, Music reviews