Christophe Bailleau and Julien Demoulin’s Outshining Memories, the latest album on Time Released Sound, is remarkably physical. This is a slightly unusual quality in ambient music (specifically not dark ambient or drone, which are often earthier) but central track “The Romance of the Object in the Age of Information (no voice)” says it all.
A thick buzz undulates deliberately throughout, accompanied by clear guitar, crunches in the background and other sounds that are all distinctly solid. There is, of course, a lot of ‘information’ on the album. Electronics are its main constituent sounds, but they are always tempered by acoustic noises or clear instruments. Echoing taps and rattles are strewn across the bleeps of “Le Jumeau”, for instance. Even the electronics themselves feel more solid than most bedroom ambient artists. Some passages may sound superficially similar to, say, Sonmi451 or Hakobune, but where those musicians reach for the heavens, Bailleau and Demoulin are firmly rooted down here.
“Faceless, Careless”, presents something of an elegy for physicality in the digital age. Every crackle and pop of the bubbling synths is left on; shallow little stabs of volume and pitch-shift calmly disrupt the music with supposed imperfections, but it is these that Bailleau and Demoulin are most interested in. Towards the end of the piece the electronics give way to soft plucks of guitar or harp. It’s a reasonably familiar argument, that we are losing the value of real things, that in the 21st century we’ve forgotten the romance of objects, of natural sounds, colours, smells and textures. There is actually a lot of physicality to be found in contemporary music – despite, or in response to, our digital times – especially in experimental techno and dance music, where the organic beats of artists like Jon Hopkins and James Holden are starting to hold more sway. The discussion is perhaps more pertinent in the ambient scene where non-computerised instruments are (relatively) less frequent. This is not to say that it’s an uncommon discussion within the genre, though. There are Taylor Deupree’s acoustic and field recording pieces or Lawrence English’s site-specific works, to name but two. Bailleau and Demoulin’s purpose is less groundbreaking, then, than a personal entry into a conversation already well under way.
“The Past Better than it Was” (the track titles give the game away somewhat) confronts a reverse-golden age idea that time and technological progress equal improvement; indeed, glitches, static and other signs of age appear regularly across Outshining Memories. However, neither does the track imply the opposite. The slightly nonsensical grammar and the calmness of the music – it is one of the least active on the album, comprising a simple, slurred synth pattern, a cracked, speaker-shifting shimmer and a smatter of acoustic guitar – seem to consciously avoid senselessly revering the past as well. Instead, the duo present a beautiful continuum. When and what is irrelevant, it’s how you use your tools and skills that matters.
These constant references to tactility and objects make Bailleau and Demoulin a natural fit for Time Released Sound. Colin Herrick’s lavish packaging is impossible to ignore when reviewing one of his releases and here it consists of machine sewn booklets with antique, crucially pre-digital film still negative and other ancient ‘ephemera’. These postmodern collages are busy, occasionally unsettling given the reversal of colours in the film still, and show off plenty of the signs of their own construction. In other words, they are an excellent fit for the duo’s earthy, imperfect, physical music.
It is clear that Bailleau and Demoulin desperately want you to think of their themes and conceptual ideas as you listen to their music, to the extent that at times they are a little too obvious. The postmodernity and all the conceptual winks would seem hollow, the album would collapse under its own references and pretensions were the music itself not so subtle and unpretentious. They come close to beating you over the head with a half-written essay, but the simple beauty of the sound saves them. “The Romance of the Object…” is captivating not for its concept, but for the way the wispy, delay-laden guitar of the first minute or so is subsumed by deep, reverberating synths. For the last couple of tracks, “How we Feel” and “You Won’t be the Last”, the musicians seem to abandon their agenda and go for a more emotional response – the eerie melody and terribly quiet, assured rumbling of the former are particularly compelling. There is still a firm rooting in organic, physical sounds (the organic-like drone of the closing piece, for example), and this makes their point well enough without being so blatantly foregrounded.
The concept alone would not have been enough to sustain interest throughout the album, but thanks to Bailleau and Demoulin’s compositional chops, Outshining Memories is not blunt, nor does it matter that the debate, whilst important, is well worn: listening to these two musicians throw in their two cents is perfectly enjoyable.