Markus Mehr may be fascinated by the aural properties of water, but Liquid Empires is no nature album; neither is it placid. The tape surprises from the start: “Kissing” launches with a head-nodding pulse that leads into a senses-scattering drone, then recedes and advances ~ like a kiss, a wave, a shower.
Liquid recordings are embedded throughout ~ rivers, lakes, seas ~ but they don’t sound like this in person. Mehr has taken the sounds back to his laboratory and tortured – sorry, teased them out. His work has in turn inspired video artist Stefanie Sixt, who amplifies his work through visual images, shooting from above and below liquid surfaces then digitally altering the results, as seen below in the video for lead single “Rank.”
Those pulses are simply a reminder that water creates its own rhythms, most apparent in ocean waves but evident in the flow of streams and the arc of storms. The sudden splatterings of “Bleed” may catch listeners off guard, but so do rogue waves and thunderclaps. There’s a whole world of music available in water, ultimately untamable, an angle Mehr captures better than most. Veteran swimmers know “never to turn their back on the ocean,” while those familiar with lightning know that it can strike when all seems clear. As such, there is comfort here, embedded in the ebb and flow of undulating sines; just don’t relax. As “Bleed” becomes suffused with dark bass and crisp field recordings, the clouds darken overhead.
By “Clouds For Sale,” percussion has turned the sonic field into a minefield, sounding more like TriAngle than Hidden Shoal. The opening of “Voyage” is like an alarm, the midsection intensely melodic, the finale foreboding. Mehr reminds us that for all of water’s worth, “we waste it and we contaminate it.” A hawk sounds a tired warning, to no avail. By combining the sounds of industry with those of nature, he creates a cautious contrast, making one yearn for the power of untreated sound while simultaneously embracing the manipulations: a stark echo of the political point.
But not everything here is bleak. In the finale, Mehr reminds us of the soothing properties of water, offering a tribute to the womb. To keep the proceedings from getting too dark, Hidden Shoal offers a cheery tote bag (available separately), where one might protect personal items in a sudden shower. Liquid Empires turns out to be celebration and warning, a fascinating document that could not have been made without the use of a natural resource that may one day be in short supply. Ironically, the act of aural and visual manipulation is a heartfelt cry to leave the water alone. (Richard Allen)