Always Not There
Always Not There comes with an interesting conception story. Irregular Crates, one of the many ventures of Harry Towell, put out an open call for audio samples. The work of 21 of these artists – including The Inventors of Aircraft, PJE and Spheruleus – appears on the album. Their submissions were then mixed into an album of droney, ambient deep house by an anonymous producer, under the name Omnimous. That name is appropriately shrouded, evoking all (omni), no-one (anonymous) and, indeed, the album is rather… well, ominous.
The deep, repetitive beats grind away, barely missing a step, unhurriedly thrumming on. They are the real drones of the album, never mind the noisy washes that accompany them. It’s an album for the nocturnal hours, to drift into a lucid dream with, letting the rhythms carry you along the borderline of wakefulness. In this way, it is much like other more droning or ambient British deep house and dub acts. “Metallourg”, with its hollow, mysterious bass wobbles and glitchy clicks and clacks, is reminiscent of Forest Swords. “A Few Ghosts” recalls Ghosting Season, in more than name. Particularly the disembodied female voice and an insistent beat that’s all thrums and pops. In fact, this similarity runs throughout much of the album – although “Sewing House” sounds a little more like Gavin Miller and Tom Ragsdale’s first alterego, worriedaboutsatan, given its more ambient, post-rock feel. At times, the resemblance is so strong that it’s tempting to suggest Miller as the anonymous producer – his recent solo album Somn even has similar artwork. But then again, that doesn’t really prove a lot, and to speculate about identity would be to miss the point.
Mystery is the album’s main allure, so to try too hard to unmask Omnimous would likely spoil the enjoyment of the album. The samples used to build Always Not There are similarly unidentifiable. It’s not possible to listen to a track and recognise the work of Twincities, for example. This makes the album remarkably coherent, despite the large number of contributing artists. Whoever the producer is, they’ve done a good job of subsuming all the samples into one style without entirely sacrificing their individuality. “Vacant”, for example, uses tape hiss and acoustic guitar as background to an appropriately slightly thinner, more fragile beat. “Let the Walls Whisper”, which comes only a couple of tracks later, is one of the darkest pieces, it’s main pulse so low as to be barely audible and everything else muted, as if the sounds are reaching up from the depths of the sea. Yet the two can sit comfortably enough on the same album, united by a rough, lo-fi aesthetic and that sense of being shrouded, whether in tape hiss or any manner of other effects.
Despite this, the most exciting parts of Always Not There come when the source sounds are briefly allowed to swallow the production. Early on in “Portal”, a squall of guitar noise rises through the mix. It falls back again, but returns to invade the last minute and a half of the piece, slowly clawing its way onto equal footing with the beat, and for a second or two at the end, it is all that remains. “Curtain Call” does a similar thing, a very simple and oddly strangled melody taking more attention than the rhythm and the surrounding jolts and bubbles holding their own against the clatter of drums.
Ian Hazeldine’s accompanying photos suit the album’s mood well. The abandoned buildings, shot in soft, muted colours, don’t quite seem real; sometimes they look almost like paintings. It’s as if at any minute they might give way to fantasy, you could step through the fading door of “The Lockup” and find yourself in an otherworldly labyrinth. This isn’t something you’d necessarily associate with deep house. Hallucinatory and intoxicating, sure, but not fantastical. But the music reflects this. There’s always a sense of discovery in tuning in to the background atmospheres, particularly in those moments mentioned where they become more prominent. And similarly there’s a wonder in hearing the latent rhythms in ambience. It’s a little like opening a supposedly familiar door and finding something unexpected behind it.
“They Said it Would Never Last” is an important closing track. At around 70 minutes, the album is a little long, and although if you let yourself be carried away into its dream-like world the time never drags, it could still do with losing ten minutes or so – even if it is nice for such an extensive and inclusive project like this to have its time to play out. The final piece, however, ends the project adeptly. The beats wind down quite soon, leaving a tangle of field recordings, quiet mechanical buzzes and, later, a lethargic acoustic guitar pattern. Having sloughed away the insistence of the pulses, the source material is allowed to breathe, to let a little light into proceedings (though not too much). In that glimmer you get to see the building blocks of the album, but, having already heard how they’ve been manipulated, there’s a pleasingly unfamiliar possibility to them.