For the second time in recent months, we’ve loved the work of a new artist only to learn that we’ve actually been listening to the work of a favorite artist using a pseudonym. The last example was Shoganai (Bas van Huizen); the latest is Oliver Barrett/Petrels (Glottalstop). Barrett is famous for releasing experimental EPs between albums, and in fact has introduced four of these since Onkalo: Wat Tyler, Yauwls, The Silver Chimney Club and Yuoals. This has been a way for the artist to expand his horizons without risk. With the new album Mima just around the corner, we didn’t think he had anything left in him, but as it turns out, Woodsmoke is so good that the new Petrels album may have a hard time competing.
Fortunately, Woodsmoke is so different from “normal” Petrels work (if there is such a thing) that comparing the two will likely end up being like comparing apples and igloos. This vinyl release is a collage of old, manipulated tapes augmented by cello and electronic improvisation. One imagines the artist cleaning out his attic, discovering these little plastic boxes, and wanting to preserve them in a more meaningful way. The crackle of Side B, with tiny choral snippets and disembodied dialogue, even calls Lost Trail to mind, a comparison we never thought we’d make. But there’s much more to the album than strings and decay; Woodsmoke is a potpourri of sound, a wealth of sources that produces a sweet sonic curry.
Side A begins with field recordings: rivers and rustles, rowboats and chains, an echo of thunder, an unoiled swing. We are traveling to the Isle of Sound, and the ferryman is planning to leave us on the other shore. But we’re not concerned about finding our way back. After disembarking, we hear the hint of an animal grunt and the see the shimmer of a distant drone, then decide to follow the tracks into the forest. What is that strange structure ahead of us? Is this the Hut of Sound, where all sonic ephemera is birthed? Or the Black Hole of Sound, into which all sound disappears? As night falls, the animal cries continue, while incantations echo in the distance. We fear the hut, but may need to seek safety within. The only sign of comfort is a lone guitar thread weaving through the weary wind.
Side B begins with an obvious Petrels signpost: this is Oliver’s cello, and we should have recognized its timbre. But it can only remain for a couple minutes. A larger drone is on the way, scattering the forest creatures like a hungry tyrannosaurus rex. This sonic woodsmoke is littered with all types of debris, from dialogue to drum loops, as if everything that happened in the woods were recurring at once. In its thickest section, Side B rivals Petrels’ “Canute” in density. Travel deeper and one might be lost; better to retreat to the shore while one’s sanity is still intact. But now it’s starting to rain …
Woodsmoke underlines our impression that Oliver Barrett is one of the most original and forward-thinking artists of the current age. He has a signature sound, but as Glottalstop he chooses to discard it. By branching into new territory, he wins our respect. By excelling in this new direction, he wins our admiration. True, we haven’t discovered a great new artist, but we’ve found a great new album. (Richard Allen)