In recent years, Christian Fennesz and Philip Jeck may have stolen the critical plaudits for Touch, but arguably the label’s most vital artist is Stockholm’s BJ Nilsen. His diverse interests have led him into collaborate with the UK’s premier sound recordist Chris Watson, and with Icelandic experimentalists Stillupsteypa and cellist Hildur Gudnadottir. It is in his solo work, both on record and in concert, that he has brought all this together, fusing field recordings with electronics to create coherent works focusing on the interface between humans and nature. And, particularly in the case of new album The Invisible City, with technology.
Nilsen’s excellent 2006 album The Short Night took him on an Arctic exploration, and while The Invisible City features recordings from as far South as Portugal, it feels little warmer or lighter. For the most part, these are some particularly dark and icy atmospheres, and feel a further step removed from life, if not from civilisation. The images The Invisible City evokes for me are of the unseen networks which support the city: electrical grids, subterranean transport, and telecommunication channels. This may appear odd when you read that the sound sources appear to some extent to be typical Nilsen fare, including bees, wasps, birds and cats, but they too find themselves sucked into these conduits. None of those feature on opener “Gravity Station”, which starts from near silence as “Front” did on The Short Night. Layers of electrical hum and sine waves are topped with a phone line burble which builds in intensity, before exploding into scarred metallic fragments. I think this must be what it would feel like to send yourself by fax (note to self: don’t ever try this). The animals’ attempts at communication bleed into these networks, with the birdsong of “Scientia” and “Virtual Resistance” processed into digital unrecognisability. The latter glows with a harsh street-light buzz, as someone’s footsteps emerge from late night underground station rumble. The train batters on through into “Meter Reading”, the grind of metal-on-metal gradually wearing away at the piece to leave a silent black platform, before tearing off again through the rain on the propulsive title track, ending the album on a thrilling and fulfilling note. The Invisible City fades fast into the distance, into the air, and into the ground. I’ll be taking many return journeys.