Chris Strickland is worried. This is his first release, his five-year labor of love, and he’s afraid that people will listen to it too quietly, or not closely enough. But there’s no need to worry ~ Animal Expert is a rewarding listen.
With three tracks totaling one hour, Animal Expert is no pop product. Instead, it’s a study in compositional direction and tonal contrast. The disc opens in near silence – so quiet that it can be overwhelmed by a soft refrigerator hum. But as soon as the first coin drops, the sound breaks through. Two minutes later, wind and trains arrive, then retreat. The anticipation is palpable. One begins to wonder what sounds will arrive from silence, as if every sound were borne on a subway car, disembarking in darkness. The concentration on each noise is akin to that of a solo traveler or a guest in a deserted house. The amygdala is placed on high alert. First a drone appears, then a single bird, yet in their wake, something else. This is the realm of pure suspense: suggest, don’t show. Footsteps, whispers and voices are heard in the distance: friend or foe?
The restraint of the first piece is a setup for the thickness of the other two. While continuing to shine his spotlight on individual sounds, Strickland proceeds to a study of cacophony. A shot rings out on “Mammoth Husbandry”, followed by a boisterous laugh; perhaps it’s Dick Cheney on a duck hunt. Crinklings, rushes of water and high-pitched pings intertwine. This is a different noise cluster than the average listener is accustomed to hearing. Most industrialized sounds are less inviting and only tangentially musical: jackhammers, honks, over-amped drive-throughs, neighboring TVs. Essayist Garret Keizer calls the latter “the unwanted sound of everything we want”. Yet Strickland takes the opposite approach. These are the sounds he has enjoyed and collected over the years, ranging from field recordings to classical phrases to digitized computer squall. If these clusters were common, would we be fascinated by the others instead of irritated? Perhaps ~ and therein lies the point. Volume becomes noise only when it is unwanted and beyond our control.
In the same way that some collect tchotchkes, sound artists collect sounds. These are no good if they sit on a computer – they are meant to be shared. The finest sound artists sculpt familiar sounds into unfamiliar shapes. In so doing, they open the aural imagination. Strickland succeeds in this task by loosening the cap a bit at a time. At certain points in the mix, it seems as if every sound has escaped, and he’s chasing them around the room. Late in “Mammoth Husbandry”, one hears the sound of a television and realizes that it’s the least interesting part of the mix; a TV boxes the imagination, while a mysterious score throws open the windows. For those who were planning to spend an hour in front of the set this evening, please reconsider; this is a far better way to spend an hour. (Richard Allen)