What do Frédéric Nogray, Lee Patterson and Pali Meursault (FANT^MS) have in common? All are fascinated with sounds that would normally remain unheard. Nogray specializes in industrial crucibles forged into singing bowls; Patterson prefers springs, motors and chemical reactions; Meursault focuses on failing neon light and other electromagnetic activity. Under natural circumstances, one might expect their concerts to be nearly silent; the trick is amplification. Roomtones is a slice of vinyl with a bonus CD, a neat trick as the CD tracks are not listed on the Bandcamp page, but remain hidden until purchase.
As the album begins, one recalls the experiments of Harry Bertoia, who once filled a barn with discarded metal forged into resonant percussive instruments. The concentration of tone over melody is continued here. Though the tracks are brief and well-rounded, each magnifies a particular timbre or set of timbres, as if to say, “this is what you would hear if you were to strike this object, or had the ears of a dog.” In the second piece, high pitches join the array, and one wonders if there are higher pitches still, but we are just too old to hear them. In “Land of Maybe,” chimes are joined by static and fuzz, normally associated with feedback; unwanted in daily life but cherished here. In this Land of Maybe, which may exist in territories marked Here There Be Monsters, the definition of aural beauty is flipped on its head.
As the LP reaches the end of Side A, it grows more abstract, with extended tones and less toned percussion. Drone becomes the defining force: halfway through “Larsen-C,” a long denouncement like a slowly drained balloon, followed by what may be a clock but is more likely an internal motor. This is Patterson’s segment, amplifying items we might normally overlook (a laptop fan or battery-operated watch). It all comes clicking, tumbling down, with ticks and tocks and gears and grinds, leading to a surprising choice of title: “Xmas Song.”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, although not the one you expect. This one begins with bells, but descends into a steampunk phantasm. We don’t expect to find it on your holiday playlist, but on the other hand, we won’t tire of it anytime soon; imagine it as the sound your toys really make when you leave them on all night. The foreboding sense continues in “Witch-Switch,” by which time we can tell that Meursault is in the room. Even without the description, we can recognize the sound of buzzing lights. Below the buzz lies what may be construction: buzz saws, drills, soldering irons. But we could be mistaken, as switch may be a noun or a verb. The title track retracts to resonances and hums.
The bonus disc offers a completely different listening experience: two extended tracks (38 minutes total) that focus on microsounds instead of maximal. If the LP is meant for speakers, the first half of the CD is meant for headphones. Here we hear the chemicals bubbling, the springs rattling, the long half-life of tones. At times, “Undertone” is nearly silent; “Overtone” builds from this initial calm to become first a drone and finally an electro-acoustic excursion. The most overtly musical piece of the set, “Overtone” is more composition than experiment, eventually offering a sense of catharsis.
The trio’s instruments of choice: “discarded objects of the industrial realm.” In this recording, one man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure. (Richard Allen)