Codiaeum variegatum, a plant native to south Asia and the Pacific, makes a surprisingly apt title for Anne Guthrie’s album. The plant is short, vibrant, a little odd (at least to these western eyes), and bleeds toxic sap from its stems. Much the same could be said of the music here. The poisonous part is particularly interesting, with Guthrie cutting quickly to a core of sharp, dangerous experimentation.
The opening sounds of the album are, by contrast, very easy to digest. Strings resonate thickly through the first minutes of “Branching Low and Spreading”, folding over each other in a leaf-like way, and making the most of the instruments’ wooden tones, emphasising the lower, throaty, organic sounds. The field recordings that enter later on are similarly comfortable, playing out a non-descript, quiet, perfectly lovely rural scene. You get the sense that this is Guthrie lulling you into a false sense of security, or showing you that she’s got the basics sorted before proceeding to mess around with them a bit, but even here there’s a hint of the strangeness to come. The timbre of the strings is so intensely wooden, even hollow, that it verges on the otherworldly. The processed French horn brings with it some slightly dissonant clashes. And the lack of specificity in the field recordings seems deliberately intangible rather than generic.
By the time of “Unlike More Slender and Graceful”, Guthrie has settled into her own little world of sound. This time the piece opens with tinny, indistinct scraping sounds. If there are strings involved then their tone is at the other end of the spectrum entirely. Watery field recordings rise and fall in the mix, distorted and intertwined with the other sounds in a way that is much more individual, rather than being left in their own habitat. The piece ends as unsettlingly as it began, drifting off into an inaudible wisp.
This kind of collaged soundscaping is the album’s greatest strength, because Codiaeum variegatum is, above all, the work of a highly accomplished acoustician. The range displayed in “Long Pendulous” is impressive, from the open, viscous start via a low industrial hum and shrill shivers to calm, wide reverberations at the end – and apparently seamlessly. This is all achieved with only the slightest of cares for such things as dynamics or propulsion, the music remaining low to the ground and meandering, which far from rendering it inert and dull, is an important contributor to the vein of weirdness from which the album gets its originality. It always feels like the places Guthrie is creating are ones only she has seen, sculpted from fragments of familiarity that are as difficult to get a hold of as the fragmentary track titles, pieces cut from natural sentences. The final track, “Persists into Winter”, is the closest the album gets to being driven, cacophonous and yet still not especially loud, its timbre a curious mix of metallic and cavernous, almost like the echoes of bells, pipes and sheets clattered and rung underground. Or perhaps recordings from the inside of a shipping container. The music’s unplaceability makes it all the more enticing.
Codiaeum variegatum gets its vibrancy from the variation of tones that go into its creations. The passages of French horn are particular highlights, especially those in “Rough Above with Uneven Base” which are more serene and welcome relief from the generally rough aesthetic. Late in the piece all the other sounds cut out, leaving only one plaintive figure of the electronically treated brass instrument and underlying static. It’s the album’s most simply beautiful moment. It also makes a stark contrast with the hollowed strings (though both are made abrasive enough at times) and with the intensely varied field recordings. Listening to Guthrie play these different sounds off of each other, melding and juxtaposing them, taking them from one acoustic setting to another and building them into frequently unsettling, transitory soundscapes is fascinating. Hers is a relatively new voice, Codiaeum variegatum being her debut full-length proper, but it is definitely one to listen for more of.