Thursday, July 27, 2006

Revamp, renew (3 of 6)

The Mystifying Oracle - Quintessence

In these days of MTV-fueled, mass media consumption of popular "musicians", it is rare to find artists that create for the sake of their art rather than for that of their wallets or their popularity. "Face time" and recognition seem more important than quiet quality.

Conversely, a good deal of the electronic fare that we are served up via the internet and other "alternative" music sources is created by anonymous, bedroom studio producers. However, in most cases these producers remain anonymous simply because their product does not warrant enough attention to make them famous.

Not so Portland, Oregon's ambient masterminds Austere. With six releases since the late 1990s, Austere continues to produce some of the most beautifully compelling abstract music I've heard. In spite of their obvious talent (or perhaps because of it?) this duo has proved to be extremely camera shy, preferring to have their music speak for them, as one of their posts on The Ambient Way states.

"We're trying to avoid the typical fandom/cult of personality that grows around musicians but rather try to let the merits of our music (or lack thereof) stand alone in how people judge our work. We're also determined to explore areas of music that interest us without regard for popular or commercial potential, and as long as we're happy with the results, we've no mind as to how others take them, other than really enjoying when someone else hears our music and enjoys it too. It surprises and delights us, as we do like bringing happiness to others."

"Wanting to be anonymous seems to put many people off or have them decide that we're not be taken seriously and we're fine with that. We're just trying to make music we like and live up to our own ideals, which we readily admit are not those of the mainstream."

This adventurous and exploratory attitude has resulted in some incredible releases as well as the birth of a side project. While specific details on this undertaking are sketchy (very in keeping with Austere's approach to the public), The Mystifying Oracle features at least one member of Austere and their first release, Quintessence, expands on the ideas first set out by those elusive Oregonians. While the vast majority of Austere's work is beatless ambient, TMO combines the floating, wispy feel of their forefathers with an excellent sense of deep, slow rhythm.

This beautiful CD consists of 3 proper tracks separated by 4 untitled "interludes". The first interlude serves as a short, beatless introduction to the album, flowing directly into the second track, "sagacious gibber". This extended piece combines the tone set in the introduction with an almost tribal beat, yet never loses its dark, droning feel. The bass drum that sets the rhythm puffs along softly, accented by well placed conga strikes and discrete hihat work. All the while, shimmering tones, almost like birdsong, float high above distant, subtly distorted guitar strums. One hears hints of Seefeel and other shoegazers in this track, but is by no means derivative.

Track 3 is a patchwork of Kraftwerk-like electronic tones that skitter in and out of focus. While not loud enough to feel disturbing or chaotic, there is a certain claustrophobic quality to the piece, as if one were floating in muddy water, beneath the surface, tiny fish flashing in and out of your field of vision.

From there, the leap into "effervescence" is something different entirely. The first view seconds are filled with a barely audible drum beat and the this near silence is broken by a melancholy piano chord progression, sounding as if it was played in some distant, lonely room. A cymbal and shaker pattern takes up the rhythm and the drumbeat becomes more pronounced. Bell-like tones and washes sweep in and around the groove. Then, floating out of this beautiful grayness, comes a woman's voice. She sings a brief snippet of "You Go To My Head" in an almost offhand way, her delivery rife with a bleakness reminiscent of Billie Holiday. The singer pops up throughout the track, always sounding as if she too was crooning in that distant room.

Track 5 is a spooky vocal sample that leads right into "laggard's swag". This final instrumental recalls the swirling atmosphere of "sagacious gibber", but seems even more spacious. A dusty snare-like splash begins an appropriately laggardly rhythm and is soon joined by soft cymbal strikes. Then a wonderfully rounded bass drum fleshes out the beat and the song floats off into nothingness. Echoing chimes and quivering synth stabs spiral above the drone, accented by quick, wordless vocal samples, a la early Aphex Twin. The tune then disappears with one last touch of reverb.

The final track is yet another vocal sample, this time recited by an ancient sounding man. "The moving finger writes, and having written, moves on. Nor all your piety, nor wit, shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it." Strange words, yet an appropriate denouement for this CD, as the overall feel of this release would be irreparably damaged by the removal of any of its finely crafted pieces. Contained within these tracks is a journey into the spaces, both inner and outer, and The Mystifying Oracle proves a more than able pilot of both.


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