If you think you know Ross Baker, then think again. Then think again. In the past couple years, we’ve come to think of the London composer as an ambient artist, with a preference for piano and elegant monologues. But as this year’s releases prove, he’s impossible to pigeonhole. The prolific artist has released at least seven new works this year (not counting an expanded re-release of his debut and a retrospective). The surprise is found in the fact that these albums sound so different.
“Mother? I’ll tell you about my mother,” begins Baker’s split cassette with Tranzmit on Arachnidiscs. A drone blast enters, and a moment later, a narrator begins to speak of surgery and corpses. This half-hour piece, “Terra Incognita”, is more of a Halloween walk than a pastoral stroll. Drawing from musique concrète and plunderphonics, this disturbing work has been culled from a collection of recordings, spliced together like a Frankenstein’s monster of sound sources. Chains are dragged; an anvil is struck; a woman’s voice is stuck in a loop. Baker claims that the tape is meant to represent some of his travels, but these don’t sound like places many would want to visit. Chortles, static, and radio waves converge; someone is changing the dial. But few people listening to this broadcast on a radio would wish to make the switch; it’s fascinating from start to finish. The only clear link to the artist’s prior work is the appearance of birds midway through the piece: a signature tell, although different in this context. When Baker finally speaks, his voice is simply another in the morass: a living ghost surrounded by the dead.
“One day, when you’re up to it,” sings Björk, “the atmosphere will get lighter, and two suns ready to shine just for you.” Two Suns Were Visible in the Sky, Baker’s album for Flaming Pines, continues in this vein. The subject – found in comic books and sci-fi films – lends itself well to this languid enterprise. At this point, we’re back in what we thought was typical Baker territory, although now we’re less sure of our bearings. On the first piece, the acoustic guitar holds court, but the second is dark and electric. The birds visit on “Some Early Hour”, crying in the rain, and nest in “Mippy Face”. But the oddity of “Matterpillar”, which sounds like a blind man trying to tap his way out of a metal tunnel while pursued by malignant worms, tells us that Baker has more up his sleeve than sounding pretty.
While the electronic element pops up from time to time on Suns, it’s much more apparent on Document #2 on FSOLDigital. (Yes, that’s Future Sound of London!) The album is a series of field recordings from Craig Gillman, processed by Baker and released as Sturmazdale. For the most part, they sound less like field recordings than robots mating with insects on a bed of drone. Untamed pops, whirls and buzzes weave a mechanical nest as intricate as the track titles. The longest: “Substance Olivetolic Acid (Before Using It To Biosynthesise Tetrahydrocannabinol”). The tracks possess the cool, clinical sheen of the laboratory; only occasionally do the organic sounds poke through. As one might expect, these tend to be birds and bees, although not in that order; for the latter, one must wait until the end.
Baker applies the same technique to field recordings that he and Shelldove recorded as Bunny Huzzard, but Brighton is heavier on percussive tempo, preferring a found sound sort of timbre on all but the closing track. It’s not clear whether the sounds started this way or if Baker made the beats, but either way, the songs are gleeful and human in a way that those on Document #02 are not. Add a little bass, pump up the percussion with drums instead of just sticks, and one might even make a dance track of “Brighton 1” or “Brighton 5”. The irony is that the set was intended to reflect the “oppressive mood” of a “grim, dank room”. But when the glass jars start rolling, the clocks start ticking and the alarms start ringing, one feels the exact opposite. Like it or not, this is a fun release. The first of many bird appearances arrives at 00:17.
There’s the bird, right on the cover this time (although some of the 85 unique collages contain fish instead). Wolf Hall has the highest profile of all of Baker’s 2014 releases; it has the best backstory (based on the novel by Hilary Mantel, whose collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was just released as well); and the finest art, courtesy of Time Released Sound. The music also hews closest to what we once thought was the Ross Baker sound: sweet piano, light drones, a clear sense of flow. And yet, with titles such as “The Dead Complain of Their Burial” and “Master of Phantoms”, one recognizes a subliminal darkness. In like fashion, Tudor England showed a genteel face to the world, while passions and intrigue ruled beneath. This album (recorded as Middlemarch along with pianist Dimitris Avramidis) is a perfect accompaniment to the book.
Baker retains the piano and field recording angle on Periphery (on Twice Removed), returning again to his work with Shelldove. This time out, the field recordings are far less modified; and one only has to wait a few seconds for the birds. There’s even a new track called “The Blackbirds’ Revenge”, referencing an earlier tape of the same name. The songs were recorded at the same time as those found on Two Suns, but were deemed “too personal or claustrophobic” for inclusion there. While this may be true of “Energy Park”, marked by the sound of heels on a wooden floor, and the sprawling “Concrete Ant”, with its whimpering dog electronics, one would think that “Matterpillar” would have ended up here and not there. The warmest songs make use of traffic noise, rain, and – we’ll go with code – avian mating calls.
The final entry in what Baker calls “this era of my music” is a CD3″ on E.L. Heath’s Plenty Wedlock label. Clouds in the Shape of Clouds allows Baker to tie a bow around the work of the past few years, and its concise nature lends it the bittersweet tone of an epilogue. The title track is one of Baker’s best: a simple guitar piece, homespun and unadorned. On “Oxgodby” (with The Things That Fly), Baker says of a natural vista, “One thing is sure, I had a feeling of immense content … I’d like this to go on and on.” But all things must change, as Baker himself has changed. He will begin a new era next year as International Debris (a track on Two Suns). Only Baker knows what this will entail. He’s surprised us before, he’s surprising us still, and we suspect – to our great pleasure – that he will surprise us again.