There are times when even the most familiar landscape takes on an uncomfortable edge. The hill up the road starts to look alien, the cityscape like a jumble of separate, disconnected parts. Returning home after a long absence, familiar sights can feel like distant places, and hometowns can become strange foreign lands.
Petra, the newest album by Italian electronic musician Alberto Boccardi, is framed by its creator as a homecoming album of sorts, a sonic return to familiar music-making contexts. Having lived in Cairo, a “never-ending cascade of sound and flashing lights”, for five years, Boccardi returned to his native Milan in 2020, a move which, as he is at pains to explain in the liner notes, has had a significant impact on the “sound memories” which makeup these latest five tracks.
Still, the uncanny aspect of Petra comes not from its ostensible autobiographical elements but from its sound world, which regularly employs seemingly familiar timbres, patterns, structures, and editing techniques in subtly jarring ways. From synth tones that sound like keyboard presets to uses of silence and hard cuts that verge on the uncomfortable, Petra’s sonic landscape is an electro-acoustic, cut-and-paste collage of black and gray, a distantly despondent look at familiar tropes made alien.
Already in the opening track, “Arenaria 1”, something seems off: are those reverbed snaps or smacking lips, fully formed words or the slurring of a robotic ghost in the machine? Slowly sliding synth leads move hypnotically up and down, ring modulators rub, swoop, and drone together, the occasional gong: the scene is being set, and the landscape is coming into view. Yet the true oddity of Petra only becomes apparent in “Arenaria 2”, the opening moments of which provide a masterclass in the art of subverting sonic expectations for the digital age. From silence, a stuttering ladder of hard-cut, percussive sound jitters to the fore, then back again, then disappears. Glitchy repetitions of what sounds like the same audio sample jump two dynamic levels, go back to nothing, jump even higher, leave, and are followed by long breaths of silence. The remainder of “Arenaria 2” builds on these opening sounds, while also including much of the same droning, sliding, and lightly distorted textures found on the opening track. While more rhythmically interesting throughout, it is the boldness and unexpectedness of “Arenaria 2”’s dynamics which make the track more memorable than its opening counterpart.
Further tracks continue to build on this sonic palette, from the hushed, sour micro-tonal harmonies of “La Testa Cade A Piombo” to the muttering, whispering darkness of “Silice”, which once again shows off Boccardi’s willingness to allow the seams and sutures of contemporary recording and editing techniques to occupy their own sonic space. Featuring an intimately mic-ed, eerily-edited spoken performance from dancer-turned-vocalist Cinzia De Lorenzi, “Silice” (meaning Silica in Italian) is oddly less crystalline than the final track, “Una Variopinta Immagine Divisa”, in which round, icy, bell-like tones ring out in a slowly pulsing rhythm. Still, the most interesting and successful aspects of Petra are the moments when, in truly experimental fashion, Boccardi carves out the unfamiliar from the familiar. Petra’s best moments allow the uncanny to creep into the heavily saturated landscape of contemporary electro-acoustic music, giving the listener a new appreciation for the oddity of recorded, edited, streamable sound. (Peter Tracy)