Reviews:


Alex Temple    14-August-2002 Biota - Object Holder

Imagine if a jazz trumpeter from a smoky nightclub, a group of Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk musicians, an indie-pop band that sounds like a cross between Blonde Redhead and Circulatory System, and an experimental ambient-electronic musician all got together to record an album for aliens underwater.

Yes, it's a glib description. But Biota's music isn't too easy to describe. It rarely sounds like any other music out there, and when you do notice something familiar, it quickly gets enveloped in other sounds or disappears into a complex sonic haze. Different musical phrases often overlap, and sometimes it seems that entirely independent pieces are happening at the same time. Rhythms are always slightly out of sync, and many sounds are drenched in reverb, allowing them to stay in your ear while something new starts. As a result, there are no sharp stylistic edges; the change between different types of music is gradual.

Although Object Holder has 24 tracks, it is essentially divided into three parts. "Swallow" and "This Ridge" are short piano pieces by C.W. Vrtacek, much simpler and thinner in texture than the rest of the album, and they serve to separate the sections. The first part kicks off with the astounding "Bumpreader," the longest track here and one of the most complex: strange watery noises give way to a sort of polyrhythmic folk dance played on unrecognizable instruments, which in turn is overtaken by Henry Cow-like noise and unsteady percussion, then a sparse and fractured composite of echoing drumbeats and brief fragments of atonal melody. The tracks that follow develop this style of music, simultaneously vague and lucid, completely acoustic and heavily electronic. It is not until the seventh track, "Reckoning Falls," that a human voice appears, that of the wonderful Susanne Lewis, also known for her work in Hail and Thinking Plague. She sings cryptic lyrics about Uri Geller, while the strange percussion work and electronic sounds of the last six tracks combine with guitar playing that almost sounds suitable for an experimental indie-pop song.

Songs dominate the second part of the album. The three instrumental tracks, "Steam Trader," "Understander" and "Cinder," recall the first section, but are a bit simpler. The middle part of the album, then, is somewhat "easier" to listen to than the rest of it. The songs are very catchy, while at the same time being extremely strange, and Tom Katsimpalis' and Chris Cutler's slightly disturbing lyrics reflect the alien nature of the music perfectly. The centerpiece of the album is certainly "Distraction," which builds slowly from Lewis singing with creepy flatness over jazzy guitar chords and drumming, to a truly scary climax of multi-tracked voices singing lyrics like "other people are just rungs shouting words at my feet," weird alarm-like tremolos from some unknown instrument, and, in the background, the same squelching wave sounds that opened the album.

The third part seems to recapitulate the first in reverse. There are only two songs, and they occur towards the beginning of the part. The music is more unsettling, though: the strange tremolos from "Distraction" reappear in "More Silence," and "Coat" features lyrics about the need to be "pressed by a mass" that hit very close to home while seeming totally off-the-wall psychologically. The instrumentals that follow are similar to those at the beginning of the album, but slower and perhaps more despondent in mood. "The Trunk" closes the album as a counterpart to "Bumpreader," quite similar but more chaotic and with less audible repetition.

This sounds like an absolutely fantastic album. Unfortunately, there are a few problems that, for me at least, keep it from being perfect. The main problem is the length: I just can't concentrate that hard for 70 minutes. This is particularly frustrating in that Object Holder is one of those albums where you can't skip anything without losing something important. I tend to either listen to it in sections or just tune out for a couple minutes every now and then, which is unfortunate. My other complaint is C.W. Vrtacek's tunes (excluding "Visible Gap," where his piano playing is largely buried under other sounds). The combination of general consonance and the apparently constant use of the sustain pedal give these two tracks a cheesy, almost movie-score-like feeling. Luckily, they're very short, and act more as interludes than as essential parts of the album. And anyway, these complaints are certainly outweighed by the originality, beauty and unbelievable richness of the music. Object Holder is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone interested in experimental music.




Eric Lumbleau    11-August-2002 Mnemonists - Horde

Long before this crew changed monikers and morphed into the even more psychologically deleterious (though considerably more musical) ensemble Biota, these aural cartographers were mapping a vast, ambiguous and highly abstract terrain through the judicious filtering and processing of an immense array of largely acoustic instruments (cellos, recorders, crumhorns, clarinets, saxophones and double basses to name but a few.)

Suffused with an enormous sense of presence and fabricated with a master craftsman's eye for detail, these Colorado natives will discombobulate your composure and upend your equilibrium as they navigate you through this vivid, subtle and profoundly disorienting sojourn into the limitless potential of sound. Great conveyor belts transport lost souls to Hades amidst the chatter of Morse code, locomotives barrel through shrieking windstorms across desolate landscapes, gaggles of geese cackle away inside grain silos and metronomes compete with wheezing calliopes, briefly surfacing before being subsumed in the churning hallucinatory miasma of what sounds like the world's largest orchestra tuning up.

From start to finish, this perfectly balanced excursion will leave your psyche perfectly imbalanced. What more could you ask for?

(Originally published in Alternative Press #131, p.103; reprinted by permission)




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