An immense project of imaginary/imaginative mapping is at the heart of Eilean, launched recently by Mathias Van Eecloo of Monolyth & Cobalt. Each release on the label (the aim is for 100) will correlate to a point on a fictional island – Eilean being Scottish Gaelic for island.
HolyKindOf’s Stay/Sea, however, arrives without many of the usual trappings of a soundscape album. The most obvious absence is field recordings. There are tape loops and found sounds, but nothing specifically to do with landscape. Given that the landscape in question doesn’t actually exist, that might well be appropriate, and there’s certainly something fantastical, or at the very least delightfully odd about the tape samples. There’s very little consistency to them; they whirr and whizz as if being fast-forwarded and rewound almost entirely at random; or as if the tape had been scrunched in a fist, then dragged through the tape machine whilst still balled up and that could actually make a sound.
The tape (and vinyl) samples bubble and burst around viscous cello drones. Again, these drones are in some ways unspecific. There are no folk instruments, for example, that might give the listener an easy pointer toward the landscape they are supposed to be imagining. They are evocative though, thick and damp coils of sound. It’s reminiscent of Petrels’ first album, particularly on “Requiem, et Cetera”, where a strained and soulful higher figure cuts through the deep, throaty atmospheres. At other times, there are shades of Gavin Bryars, especially when the tape decks and vinyl sampling are most prominent. Bryars is not someone to be evoked lightly. There’s a pretty hefty risk in nodding to such influential, and just plain brilliant, musicians, so it’s to HolyKindOf’s credit that Stay/Sea comes out of the comparison with dignity intact. Sensibly, the album never goes for the narrative weight of The Sinking of the Titanic, or indeed for near-revolutionising a genre of contemporary music. Instead, the allusion is a tonal one, using chopped up and mangled samples to suggest a suffocating mass, scrambling whatever’s underneath, and the wetter sounds of vinyl and the fluidity of string instruments played in a wide, overlapping manner, to suggest… well, water.
J Bryan Parks, the man behind HolyKindOf, sculpts these atmospheres with precision enough that a landscape emerges from them without the help of more typical touchstones. As might be clear already, it’s a swampy picture – standing water and thick, misty air. It’s flat – there’s little change in dynamics throughout the album, with variation coming through slow repetition, if at all, and excitement through the wobbling tape loops or simply the richness of the drones – and there are few sounds of active life. Stay/Sea’s corresponding map point is inland, though not by an enormous distance, and a fair way from any of the other available map points. It seems like an ideal place for a deserted swampland. It’s also roughly analogous to the position of the Norfolk Fens, which seems appropriate given the images conjured (though they’re no longer marshland). Stay/Sea sometimes recalls the work of Simon Scott, whose Below Sea Level mapped that area of East Anglia. The two albums share a dense patience and a slightly unconventional approach to found sounds – Below Sea Level was, in part, notable for its general eschewing of typical field recordings.
Parks has an astute grasp of acoustics; it’s no surprise that “Ceremonial Magnet (Part 1)” was originally written for a performance at a Cleveland art gallery. The resonances, or lack of, are perfect throughout the album. With the cello drones, the sound hangs in the dead air, but without echoes or delays it is always gone (just gone, not faded) before another one turns up. This gives the album a visceral clarity, with each crackle of tape and scrape of string coming out remarkably well defined, despite the muddy aesthetic. It’s a landscape you can almost touch, as well as hear. All this is the more impressive given that Stay/Sea is HolyKindOf’s first physical release, although Parks has been making music in other formats and guises for a while.
It’s impossible to gauge the success of Eilean’s gargantuan project so early on. It’s not clear how the albums will interact with those describing map points near to them, or how a sense of coherence will be maintained over so many releases – landscapes are diverse, but it is only one island after all. The label is, however, off to a good start. That soundscaping clichés have been roundly avoided is particularly pleasingly, and Stay/Sea’s tactile impressionism seems a perfect fit for this kind of long-term mapping. It’s neither so specific that it will be constricting for future output, nor so abstract that it feels shoe-horned into the project. It does have a sense of physical place to it, and those allusions and images of swampland would be there without the framing concept. The label’s first release, Twincities’ Variations for the Celesta, achieved a similar balance. The prospect of exploring the landscape further is one to be relished, and eyes will be kept firmly on both HolyKindOf and Eilean around these parts.