Ludwig Berger (Melting Landscapes) launched the Milan cassette label Vertical Music in October of 2019, releasing a preliminary multi-colored batch. Then the pandemic happened. This year, the label has returned with its second batch, which includes its finest release to date: Alyssa Moxley‘s Underdrift. The others in the batch (all worthwhile) come from Nicola Di Croce and Shuta Hiraki; those who purchase all three will save six euros.
Subtitled Volcano Music, Underdrift is the polar opposite of Melting Landscapes, the fire to the ice. Recording in Nisros, Greece, the artist constucts a narrative that builds from pastoral activity to lava flow. These three pieces operate as a mini-movie, evocative in tone, little exposition needed. We all know we’ll eventually reach the volcano ~ the cassette is a fiery lava red ~ but the journey enhances the experience.
The bees are heard before the birds, an effective example of foreshadowing. Then lambs and herding dogs, accompanied by their shepherds. The grass around the crater is especially fertile, preferred by man and beast. Flocks take off on occasion, as if feeling the subterranean rumbles. Cows moo, drunk on supercharged greens. Want more cowbell? Wait for it. The overall effect is amusing, the animals seeming to go where they wish despite the presence of singing, yelling men. The bubbling of mud pits and sulfur vents first appears in the middle of the piece. Hold on there, buddy, stay away from the edge. Moxley seems to leave the crowd to record this segment, as all animal sounds cease; for a while, only the volcano can be heard.
“Night smoke over the caldera” is a peaceful evening piece, as nocturnal creatures call out their contentment. The middle track serves as a respite between dangers. Muted music, like a clanging of bells, haunts the mid-section. The bubbling returns and for a time the sounds coexist, producing an exquisite contrast. This leads to “Subduction,” the field recording version of a post-rock finale. Wasting no time, Moxley returns to the session’s darkest sounds, to which the listener ascribes a sinister tone, anthropomorphizing the lava as it moves from speaker to speaker, threatening to break the boundaries, to flow into the room, to flood the ears. The floor is lava.
Moxley’s attention to detail ~ layers, tonal shifts, and stereo effects ~ makes her soundscape come to life. We can imagine Underdrift as one of her installations, but more crucially, we can imagine ourselves on Nisros. Every species of sound deserves its own definitive audio biography. In the category of volcano music, this tape soars to the top of the list. (Richard Allen)