What do birdsong, vinyl crackle, techno beats and heavy metal growls have in common? They all appear on Åke Parmerud’s latest collection. This seemingly disparate set of subjects unites to form a surprisingly coherent whole. The Gothenburg artist has defied the odds, still going strong at the end of his fourth decade in electro-acoustic music. His natural curiosity (“I wonder what would happen if I did this?”) and playfulness (“Get me some growlers!”) combine to form a joyful experience.
Take for example “Electric Birds”, the bird composition that once upon a time, Parmerud swore he would never make. Birdsong is one of the most overused tropes in music (especially in ambient – enough already!), yet here the artist still manages to do something new. By isolating specific New Zealand species that sound like electronic instruments, he creates a piece that defies the ears. As he points out in the liner notes, the bass bird is tiny, but really sounds like a bass! While it may be possible that these birds have been dropping in on raves and imitating their sounds, it’s highly unlikely. When Parmerud starts adding electronic touches of his own, the shift is barely perceptible.
Now to another overused sound: the vinyl crackle. Ever since records first went out of style, nostalgia has produced a strange fascination with static, ironic because many of us are old enough to remember when crackle was a nuisance; we might even return a record and ask for a cleaner copy. A further irony is that the intrusive sound is now used as an inclusive sound, which itself is recorded to a different format. Parmerud’s “ultimate crackle” was initially designed for a 43-channel installation, and we are more than a little jealous of those who were able to hear it as intended; but the recorded version is still a beauty. Beginning (as might be expected) with the sound of a needle entering a groove, “Grooves” delves into multiple samples derived from countless home recordings, eventually overlapping them to a point that stops short of cacophony but is nonetheless effective. Of course this begs the question, “Can we get this on a record?” I for one would like to stagger these and play a few at once.
Now to the piece from which the album derives its title: “Growl”. The artist sent his youngest son in search of some growlers (in the States, that would denote large jugs filled with beer) to help record a heavy metal composition. This is a lovely image in itself: “Son, fetch your dad some growlers from the corner market.” And wow, are these guys going to need some lozenges. “Hell is us; die we must!” they intone, among other unintelligible words. It’s a powerful piece, bristling with energy and pride; as the vocalists are all from Gothenburg, one can imagine this as a friendly competition that sounds (on the surface) anything but friendly. Raaaaaaaawrrr!
“La vie mécanique” includes only the sounds of various machines; it’s a factory gone wild, the type of music that by design is purely industrial. The first sound is that of winding, followed by ticks, rustles, whirs, and finally beats. Visually, one recalls Björk’s “In the Musicals”, from Dancer in the Dark, but musically, the track has more in common with modern techno, albeit with an early industrial base. A line can then be drawn to the album’s closer, similarly rhythmic although stemming from different sources, including an earlier choral piece and even parts of “Grooves”. It’s as if the composer decided to invite all of his friends to dine under the same tent, their subsequent conversation revealing their commonalities.
Growl is a fascinating disc, experimental yet accessible, a wealth of experiences collected in a single binding. At 62, most artists are running on empty; Parmerud still has a full tank. (Richard Allen)