Fourteen years is a long break, but that’s how long it took Colin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie to return to the studio. Variations first appeared in 2001, followed by two sound installations; then silence. When one listens to the newly expanded edition of Variations (also on Elevator Bath), one realizes how well their music has aged. Ironically, the ancient patina unmoors the music from time. One would not be surprised to hear such a recording today.
Last summer, the two returned to collaboration with new energy and new ideas, releasing what has since become the first of a series. We suspect that Essential Anatomies will wear just as well as its predecessor. The first volume delves into samples and loops, conjuring comparison to Basinski and Kirby, two contemporaries who have also remained relevant, defying the odds. This gorgeous recording drifts and curls, softly snorting like a dragon taking a break from a century’s nap. Touches of modern classicism grace the recording, lending it an air of sublimated dignity. Less instrument-based than mood-based, the two side-long tracks invite listeners to wander down painted hallways and to marvel at the fading colors.
Fast-forward only a bit, to winter 2017. A second tape is released, bearing the same title but slightly different track names (the unsurprising “3” and “4”). The cover image is again fascinating, repeating the dance theme, although these are by no means dance tapes. Eugenia Loli’s vintage collages operate as visual reflections of the music, best described as abstract plunderphonics. Sheffield and Rippie use samplers and turntables to sculpt the past into new forms that defy instant categorization; suffice it to say that the old has never sounded so new.
The latest edition of Essential Anatomies is thicker and crunchier than its predecessor, with sharper edges. Where “1” and “2” soothe, “3” and “4” abrade. The shifts are swifter, the notes more dissonant. On Side A, one can even hear rhythms, albeit very slow. The end of “3” bleeds a surprising amount of turmoil, which subsides slightly on “4”. The “haunted ballroom” vibe of Variations resurfaces midway through Side B, providing a link back to that earlier work.
23-minute tracks need variety in order to hold the attention, and the duo is up to the challenge. The mystery of the music draws one in: what’s coming next? On subsequent plays, the ears gravitate to specific segments and sounds: stuttered stardust, feedback loops. If Volume One is an invitation to surrender to large sounds, Volume Two is a celebration of small sounds. Some samples last for only seconds, and never repeat; others wander through mazes before returning. Through it all, the live improvised nature of the recording shines through. The flow is not perfect, nor is it intended to be. This is a soundtrack to curiosity. What’s next? We’ll just have to keep listening. (Richard Allen)