The Unknown Tone Records label finished 2016 with a bang via a slate of new releases for the month of December. Just two of those releases, Samuel Regan’s ‘Stil De Grain’, and Bryan Ruhe and Lee Chapman’s collaborative cassette ‘Rothko’, marked some damn fine releases to cap off the year.
Ruhe & Chapman – Rothko
‘Rothko’ brings together Lee Chapman and Bryan Ruhe to celebrate the paintings of Mark Rothko. As per the liner notes, both artists had experienced the works of Rothko and felt compelled to respond with musical creations of their own. Realizing they had similar experiences via Rothko, they worked together to create this collaborative cassette release.
Chapman sets things off with his ode to “Light Red Over Black, 1959”. The entirety of the piece is buried in distorted hums and hisses. Like the artist it was inspired by, the music is a series of lines and colours that settle into seemingly familiar patterns and tones that actually hold many mysteries upon close examination. It’s an inviting piece somehow bounded by the highs and lows of each pulsating tone. Often those highs and lows ebb around each other to create an almost sonic vacuum that pulls the listener in deeper and deeper. It is on the one hand an overtly mechanical piece but Chapman’s melodies give it an emotional core. As it works through its 14 minute run time, it slowly begins to overflow in a saturation of distorted tones. But that overflow feels as much an overflow of emotion as it does a flood of sound and melody.
Ruhe’s “Untitled 1969” plays with the same ideas of distorted lines and impure tones, however, it seems more muted, quieter. But in reality, even though it’s more subdued than its predecessor, it too seems barely contained. Instead of the overwrought distortion of Chapman’s opening, it’s filled with sharp tones that come in and out of focus in rhythmic pulsations. There’s some beautiful melodies and what sounds like a piano in there, but the intent seems to be akin to a Rothko piece: it’s pure expression, and context just leads to confusion. Instead, the point is to refine music to its simplest essence and let the listener fill in the blanks via personal experience.
The final piece is a collaboration that does the thing that a good collaboration does: instead of splitting the difference and simply merging the two approaches of the different artists, it finds a completely new approach, forcing each artist to provide an entirely new take. “Segram mural sketch, 1959” seems to be based on what sounds like a piano, a trumpet and the sounds of the engine from an old boat or truck. Bass pulsations seem to drive the piece, but occasionally that bizarre mix of source sounds seem to ebb and flow in similar patterns. Those patterns don’t quite align, but in all that negative space, all those source sounds are given room to breathe. Overall, “Rothko” as a whole is as much an expression of emotions as it is an expression of ideas, and it is as abstractly expressionistic as the works that inspire it.
Samuel Regan – Stil De Grain
‘Stil De Grain’ by Samuel Regan shares many of the same impressionistic qualities as ‘Rothko’ and Regan’s work here feels like a series of brush strokes, each evident – but it’s where the individual strokes intersect that is where the emotion of the pieces emanates. The opening and final pieces, ‘Blankets’ and ‘Nocturne’, both reference sleep and feel like bookends to a journey. But across everything in between those opening and closing pieces, Regan blends sounds that drift in and out of focus like a dance of light that seems both enticing and yet unknowable in unsettling ways.
‘Stil De Grain’ is an experiment in manipulating distorted tones but Regan confidently understands his medium and what he is trying to convey with it. The album is rather well summed up by the painting on the cover: simultaneously cozy and warm, and somehow alien and isolated. But that speaks to the strength of his narrative voice as a composer with his work often thriving on a sense of mystery derived from putting paradoxical ideas in tension. Of particular note is Regan’s ability to create music that seems somehow almost classical and ‘of the past’ despite being very much the product of using contemporary technology. Even the album’s title is paradoxical as its references to a colour that no longer exists (specifically, a pigment of yellow) – a somehow contradictory idea given that most people would view colour is an eternal concept. Regan is definitely an artist to watch and a quick view of his bandcamp reveals this was no less than his sixth release of 2016.
Both ‘Rothko’ and ‘Stil De Grain’ are enchanting and nuanced works of ambient/drone textures from artists in control of their medium. While meant to serve as a strong goodbye to 2016 from Unknown Tone, if you missed either one of these albums in the haze of the holiday season, they can equally serve as a wonderful hello to 2017.