Petrels albums are like little mysteries. Oliver Barrett’s songs are always about more than they seem. Even the instrumentals have hidden stories. The press releases provide clues, but the rest is up to the listener. Mima is no exception. Barrett’s second album of the season (following Glottalstop’s Woodsmoke) and third album under the Petrels moniker, Mima is an excursion into deep space that poses deep questions about time, perception and the inner workings of the mind.
Mima is an automaton found in Harry Martinson’s epic science fiction poem Aniara, first published in 1956 and the unlikely inspiration for an opera. (We’ve heard the term “space opera”, but seldom witnessed an actual space opera!) After a tragedy in space, the Earth crew is catapulted into the unknown, and for a while Mima attempts to assuage them with art. The poem’s public quote seems to prophecy the iPod:
We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma 1 scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.
Barrett is a creator of sonic coins. His works are littered with metal debris, cast-off pops, whirrs and tones, shavings from factory constructions. These songs adopt the timbre of “Canute”, concentrating on undulating waves of drone, punctuated by electronic explosions. The triumphant opener “The 40 Year Mission to Titan Is Overtaken by the 40 Minute Mission to Titan” is a prime example. The title not only summarizes a famous science fiction plot, but serves as a short story itself, slightly longer than “The last man on earth heard a knock at the door.” (For those unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is that technological innovations will proceed exponentially, so that a seemingly fast ship might be overtaken by a faster ship created years down the line.) At first, the track is as sedate as cryostasis. A dripping sound indicates that there may be a problem in the chamber. A premature awakening follows. And then there is movement, slow comprehension, and ultimately a combination of wonder, terror and despair as the newer ship approaches. Was it all is vain? All this hoping and striving? The question caused an existential crisis for Mima; even more so for creatures of flesh and blood.
“Katharina-22B” likely refers to Kepler-22b, a habitable planet discovered only three years ago and located only 600 light years away. Barrett’s hopeful piece is packed with celestial drones and organ tones, as well as the kind beeps one might expect to hear from an outgoing robot. The major chords found in the finale are as triumphant as a coronation. In contrast, the wastelands of Carter’s Snort (“A Carapace for Carter’s Snort”) offer a different view of the future; M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device is described as an “anti-space opera” that ironically inspired more space operas. The artist provides the piece with a harder-edged, more industrial environment, but avoids the book’s harsh ending, concentrating instead on its possibilities.
“Treetiger” first appeared as a single release in the wake of Haeligewielle. It’s always yearned to be part of a group, and now it’s found its tribe. This tiger may be the one a young Lizzie Borden saw at the circus in Angela Carter’s short story, “Lizzie’s Tiger”, or perhaps the character in “The Tiger’s Bride”, a modern take on “Beauty and the Beast”. Or it may be the tiger/ghost of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Tropical Malady”. The artist’s fascination with myth means that his music is open to multiple interpretations. Two of the above tigers are shapeshifters; the other is meant as metaphor, a semantic shapeshifter. As expected, the music morphs as well, from drone and sleet to drum and sheet. It’s a strong closer, implying that the ship – which of course is not a ship – has found its home. The crew may have gone crazy, but the spirit of Mima lives on. (Richard Allen)