Unfathomless Turns 50 (and 51!)

2018 has been a quiet year for field recording labels, as many major players have slowed production or gone on hiatus.  Not so Brussels’ Unfathomless, which celebrates its 50th and 51st releases this season and shows no signs of slowing down.  Sister label Mystery Sea is also stirring from a long slumber.  One of the few physical labels left in the field, Unfathomless continues to produce high-quality CDs with a unified cover aesthetic.

Golden release #50 comes from Jeph Jerman and is available in both regular and special editions to mark the occasion.  Imbrication is a single track soundscape recorded in the Verde River Valley of Central Arizona.  It’s also (for me at least) a great new vocabulary word, meaning “an overlapping of edges,” “a decoration or pattern,” or both.  As Jerman explores his valley, he encounters numerous examples of imbrication (see, I used it in a sentence!): places where plant life and human debris blur.  In Jerman’s own words:  “Walking though the uninhabited areas outside of town, one encounters cactus as well as pine trees, creosote and crucifixion thorn, winterfat, mullein, snakeweed, hackberry, yucca and agave … scatters of rusty metal cans and broken glass, half-buried automobiles and construction detritus, old homesteads and mines.”  What a playground for the curious sonic explorer!  Interacting with his environment, Jerman taps, rattles, shakes, and makes music with found objects, turning trash into tune, dueting with water and earth, bird and bug.  In so doing, he reclaims the desert as a place of beauty despite of ~ or perhaps (in a slightly uncomfortable way) because of human intrusion.  A quarter-hour in, some of his rattling even sounds like raining.

Jerman is in love with his locale and its sonic possibilities.  His sounds are a dialogue between nature and detritus, familiar to any child who has ever discovered a resonant pipe or a rickety fence, or has wondered why broken ice and broken glass look so similar yet sound so different.  In the 21st century, we’ve become used to material and sonic pollution, from children living in Indian garbage dumps to the difficulty of finding “one square inch of silence.”  An old phrase comes to mind: “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  And if life gives you garbage, make music.

Sound Diary of Quiet Pedestrians is not what one might expect from its title.  One expects to hear footfalls and conversations recorded from metal grates; instead, one encounters the sounds of transportation.  By separating human voices from human-generated sound, Mathieu Ruhlmann & Joda Clément create a sonic environment in which it seems machines are communicating with one other:  bells and trains, foghorns and boats.  In “Gore and Hastings”, trains screech, slow and halt without discharging a single passenger, or even a conductor.  Repairs are made without commentary; sparks fly as if created by robotic revelers.  One might want to avoid Vancouver for a while; Skynet is awake.  The deep bellows of the shipyard are a reminder of the blooper at the end of “Maximum Overdrive” ~ machines have taken over, and the surviving humans escape by boat.  That wouldn’t happen here.

The album offers an unusual type of soundscape: a collage of field recordings that are unnatural, yet imitate nature in their ebb and flow.  These “characters” are anthropomorphized to the extent that we assign them intention, if not emotion.  By “Middle Arm”, the sounds have turned peaceful; the systems seem to have been oiled, and are running smoothly without us.  Perhaps we’re not so necessary after all.  (Richard Allen)

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