Dry Grass is Juan Antonio Nieto‘s 27th solo offering, and the first to be reviewed here since the gorgeously glitched Imperfect. While these two works share the same electro-acoustic blanket, their genesis is worlds apart. The first finds beauty in digital error, while the second transforms field recordings into grains of digital sand. The title is apt, as the effect is like that of heat upon green fields and river beds, leaving aridity and cracked residue.
To one listener these static charges may sound like angry bees, to another a dropped call. But there’s no mistaking the presence of “live” sounds, from footsteps to water, apparent as early as “Mud” and resurfacing throughout the set. “Going Down” seems like a duet between a Geiger counter and the wind. The ending is populated by amplified impacts and a slowing fan. “Red on Grey” breathes droplets into vinyl static. Time and time again, Nieto offers at least two sounds in contrast, one organic and the other modified, testing our perceptions. Could it be that neither is real, or that both are real? The borders are blurred to the point that one begins to hear warmth in machines and mechanical echoes in nature, making the album a reflection of our relationship with digital technology. We don’t want to love our phones and Fitbits more than rivers and trails, but they dominate our time and slowly inspire emotive bonds.
The most musical piece here is “Water Bells,” whose execution defies expectation. Water bells are associated with the soothing and consonant, but Nieto locates an unsettling dissonance. The how is less important than the why. The implication is that no sound is consigned ~ or confined ~ to a single association. Decontextualized, any sound can be interpreted as threatening or benign. This is also true of phrases, such as “Run for Life.” One person may interpret this as “Flee or Die,” while another might regard it as the name of a fundraiser. (The former is more likely in this context, given the high-pitched signals and frantic percussion.) In “Golem,” the dichotomy is even more apparent. A golem can be an instrument of protection as well as destruction, the word giving life to the clay. Is the digital world our modern golem? Nieto embeds the sound of a typewriter ~ neither natural nor digital ~ to remind us of the world between. The aleph remains until we choose to remove it. (Richard Allen)