I love skywatching in Birmingham. I remember walking home one evening, with the sun in the final stages of setting, and remarking to a friend how the sky seems so much closer here, as if you could reach out and touch a passing cloud. Having also moved here from a coastal town, like I had, he knew exactly what I meant. Across the quietening city, musician Chris Herbert was perhaps at that moment hard at work with a computer and some tape decks, developing the material that would eventually find its way onto his new release “Katushki”. While the cover art features images documenting the construction of the campus and halls of residence of the University of Birmingham, including a now-razed tower block in which the artist once lived as a student, the album is by no means a specifically Birmingham-themed; still, for me the music nonetheless helps to put the city into some kind of context (and vice-versa).
The first piece ‘Supposed Corona’ was originally created for radio broadcast, and opens with a sound reminding me of the crackle of distant fireworks. Warm, muted tones follow, half-remembered, their edges and details smoothed out over time. A tonal, two-chord pattern rises out of a haze of blips and washes; radio static and radar signals scan the heavens for signs of life. Dark blue tones seem to stretch for miles, and a tense, stuttering riff gives way to an intermittent lighthouse beam of tone. In the second track ‘Memorex Delta’, a piece conceived (as the title suggests) for cassette, waves of harmony and shimmering organ sounds alternate with deep gleaming tones, hisses of air, big open spaces stretching out over quietly pensive chords, glimmer and shift. Movement and consistency are combined and contrasted like wind-blown clouds until the very end, when a noisy fuzz abruptly cuts out.
The structure of both pieces resembles a passage through different aural ‘scenes’, connected not so much by a sense of narrative as by one of abiding in a particular place for a length of time, as both it and you gradually change. The album is imbued with that classic ambient awareness of vast distance and immensity while at the same time being located somewhere very specific, here in this particular and familiar spot. In other words, its skies are very large and very near. Could “Katushki” have been composed in a lower-lying, dust-bowl city? Perhaps, but then maybe it wouldn’t have felt this convincing, this true.