We’re always appreciative when artists go the extra mile, and Brian McWilliams (Aperus) has done so literally and figuratively. The artist has translated visits to New Mexico’s La Cienaguilla Petroglyph site into music, photography and art, and Archaic Signal is a thoughtful physical edition of his multi-media work. The combination of petroglyphs, art cards and dark ambience forms a tactile impression of the ancient and mysterious region.
The title refers to the cultural age of the petroglyphs and to the shortwave radio snippets included in the mix. These add a sense of an attempted, yet abraded communication. Some of these voices are distorted, whether spoken or sung; many scatter languages like Babel. Are the signals getting through? The modern shortwave transmissions have the same effect as old tape loops: both come across as ghosts. In the title track, choirs occupy the same space as dial-up beeps: two types of messages trying to break through, one spiritual and one technological. After this, the all-too-brief “Phase Shift” seems mournful, a reflection of messages ignored, unreceived or misunderstood.
In the back half of the album McWilliams delves even deeper into the signal world, leaving the human realm to meditate on the avian. The 17-minute “Birdsong as Mantra” cedes space to the winged residents of New Mexico, who have been passing their signals down the line, generation after generation, adapting to changing sonic environments by incorporating new signals of their own. To a bird, a petroglyph may mean nothing, but an ingrained migratory map may be the key to winter survival. These thoughts hold power: the transmission of information not only within, but across time. We can only be the sum total of accumulated wisdom if we choose to honor the teachings of our ancestors: to consider them relevant rather than archaic. McWilliams’ practice of listening to every possible voice ~ rock, bird, radio ~ makes him a vessel for the knowledge of the world. (Richard Allen)