Only two months have passed since the release of Matthias Urban‘s Passagen, but SiAl is an entirely different creature. The earlier album investigated the oscillations of drum cymbals, while the new set is a soundscape of Icelandic ocean recordings. But wait, there’s more! In 2018 the artist also released The Galvanic Twitch, a work of musique concrète, and Grey Line I & II, field recordings captured in his native Austria at dawn and twilight. Credit Urban for his hard work and diversity!
Like Grey Line I & II, SiAl unfolds in two parts, essential in this case due to the cassette format. The listener is immediately aware of the shoreline location due to the massive wind and surf. The recording is made so close to the crushing waves that at first no local species are heard; they know better than to risk being caught in the current. The sounds are violent, yet ancient; these are the same conditions the Vikings endured.
Before long, the birds come cruising in, only one at first, but then a slow cacophony. Either Urban was very still, or they didn’t feel threatened. In contrast, the harbor seals sound downright angry, fiercely protective of their young. As the sound of the sea recedes, one gleans this as a subtle soundscape, one source fading while another nudges its way to the fore.
The richness of species here is incredible, more than just loons and geese. It’s safe to say that puffins are included. Out on the cliffs, large populations breed, largely undisturbed. Threaded through their cries are the sounds of streams and waterfalls, the glorious spectrum of Iceland’s natural beauty. Late in Side A, it seems hydroponic recordings have been included as well; we recognize the cracklings as those of underwater feeding. These fragile knocks lie in direct contrast to the seals’ aggressive roars.
Is it possible for water to sound cold? It is here, as the opening minutes of Side B seem to have been poured over ice. The sound deteriorates into a soft pour, chased by an example of natural percussion; then the elastic bubbles of ice echo, imitated in the 1970s by Synsonics drums. At one point, it seems that the landscape has had enough of Urban and buries him in an avalanche; the fact of this recording is enough to show that the artist survived, although he’s gentler for the remainder of the tape. This is not an environment to take lightly; one misstep, and it’s down a crevasse, over a foss, into the sea.
These recordings were captured over a four-year period, but they come across as a single adventure: a trek into the wild, away from humanity, at the mercy of the elements. Urban returns with stories to tell, and blends them into an exquisite aural novel: a book on tape without words. (Richard Allen)