Phurpa – Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

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For all the humour and even high pantomime of Sunn O))) (they have a track called “HELL-O)))-WEEN”! The singer is dressed as a tree, and shooting lasers from his fingers!), it is clear that Stephen O’Malley wants to be taken seriously as an artist. His most recent live appearances have been in increasingly improvisational settings with Aethenor, which has brought him into contact with the free jazz community via their drummer Steve Noble. And now he has assumed that position of respect du jour, that of label curator. Having given John Elliott a similar role on their electronic Spectrum Spools offshoot, Editions Mego have put O’Malley at the head of a new acoustic imprint called Ideologic Organ. Without electricity there can be no lasers; the first pair of releases, from Phurpa and the pairing of Jessica Kenney and Eyvind Kang, focus primarily on the human voice.

Phurpa are a Russian group who have taken a journey to a place a few thousand miles south east of Moscow. Their name derives from the sacred texts of Bön, a Tibetan spiritual tradition which may (sacred texts are, in fact, somewhat scant and lacking in detail) date back tens of thousands of years, long before Buddhism had nestled amongst the Himalayas. The two traditions had a difficult early co-habitation, with members of the then predominant Bön population being persecuted and even sent into exile. Since then, the Dalai Lama has granted Bön a status equivalent to the four pillars of Tibetan buddhism, and around ten per cent of Tibetans still regard themselves as Bön.

There are important differences between Bön and buddhism, including their respective attitudes to the afterlife, as well as some more trifling ones – for example, I’m sure no-one is going to go to holy war on whether you should circumnavigate clockwise or counter-clockwise during prayers. Despite this separateness, both traditions have much in common, and have even become intertwined to an extent over the years. Ideas of life spirit, enlightenment, and healing are shared, and the areas of overlap include some of their ritualistic practices, or acts of devotion (puja): for example, their music. Phurpa’s double album Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (originally released on CD in 2008) showcases the throat singing style which is used by monks of either religion as puja, and to help them attain enlightenment.

The start of a track on Trowo Phurnag Ceremony is usually signified by the clang of a singing bowl, a low call from a Tibetan horn, or a light clatter of percussion, but after that, they are predominantly polyphonic. At first listen, you can hear an obvious link to Sunn O))), not just via the common interest in low drones, but in that their Hungarian vocalist Attila Cshar has a style which builds links between black metal and the throat singing tradition. But Phurpa really do take the level of intensity, and the level of seriousness, much higher. A mere thirty two minutes of Trowo Phurnag Ceremony groan and creak under the weighty title “Conferring Empowerment and Self-Transformation” – “HELL-O)))-WEEN” this isn’t.

Across the four sides of this double album, layers of long, deep, droning voices are punctuated by understandably exhausted-sounding gasps for breath, and the whole is scoured by the whirling overtones that the singers produce via manipulating mouth shape. These higher sounds begin like gentle breezes through a forest, but come together and strengthen until they are more akin to a wind blasting across an icy, mountainous plateau. This doesn’t sound like mere dilettantism: you surely can’t just dip in and out of this music, particularly given the level of skill involved. In order to attain this impressive level of vocal proficiency, Phurpa have undergone a considerable period not just of geographical relocation, but of musical transformation, one which has taken them from far their roots as a Russian industrial music band. But over and above this, they now sound utterly immersed in this tradition, and a cultural voyeur like myself can only imagine the profound spiritual effect that learning and performing it has had on them.

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Bee Mask – Canzoni Dal Laboratorio Del Silenzio Cosmico; Fabric – A Sort Of Radiance

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The decision to call this new Editions Mego offshoot label Spectrum Spools seems just too perfect. Though it is going to be issuing LP-only editions, the titular reference takes in recordings which use tape as part of the creative process, as well as things which are actually issued on a format which continues to have such persistent relevance in certain musical scenes. The spectrum aspect, as well as the allusion to that vivid display of colour (as beloved of psychedelia as much as its more recent musical cousin, hypnagogia) is surely a reference to a continuum: a body of analogue electronic music, one which stretches back to the musique concrete (and tape-based) work of Pierre Henry and Francois Bayle at INA-GRM, taking in the Radiophonic and modular synth pioneers, the kosmische and subsequent new age movements, the Lovely Music catalogue, and leading right up towards more recent excursions into synth-pop, industrial electronics and noise (which are, of course, so often issued on tape).

Via a whole bunch of recent artists drawing inspiration from these sources (not least the likes of the label’s curator, John Elliott from Emeralds), the whole thing is given a twist and taped end-to-end so that what you have is a never ending strip, in which the new and the old are back to back and side by side, visionaries past and present located contiguously. A Möbius strip (or perhaps, in the spirit of giving respect to our musical elders, a Moebius strip). Those new musicians can have very different approaches to this huge back catalogue: the most artistically successful are those which don’t just copy old forms, but seek to build new links; those cutting and splicing different elements together, or overdubbing, rather than those simply making their own copies. The likes of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never are as much – if not more – plugged into minimalism, concrete and noise as they are into the kosmische scene of the 1970s.

Bee Mask is a similar case in point. The alias of Chris Madak, the project of this name has been responsible for a tangle of CD-Rs and cassettes (what else?), mainly on Deception Island, but also on Arbor and Emeralds’ own Wagon label. The wonderfully-titled Canzoni Dal Laboratorio Del Silenzio Cosmico first unspooled itself on the Gift Tapes label last year as a short (C30) but particularly well realised demonstration of his creative vision, one which showed an affinity with a wide variety of the aforementioned colour palette, and which arranges them to set up interesting contrasts: vivid against muted, warm against cold. It opens with a concrete-like collection of samples – the sounds, I think, of bowed marimba, someone coughing, and some rewinding cassettes (what else?) – before cosmic arpeggios rush in and overwhelm the space. Later, some minimalist drone is followed by a burst of dense noise and then some lucid Radiophonics, bright and melodic, while some of the more experimental synth landscapes remind me of the composer Douglas Leedy. And that compositional element is the most important factor: you get the sense that this has been put together with considerable thought, in order to create this nostalgic – if somewhat mysterious – narrative.

Some of the work I’ve heard from Chicago’s Matthew Mullane in his other guises has placed him in the realm of the serious electro-acoustic composer, the sound artist, or simply the guitarist, but his debut full length release under the Fabric name is primarily synthesizer-based. Not content with being virtually a one man Emeralds, he also publishes poetry and writes lengthy essays on the aesthetic experience. Given that he is clearly such a deep thinker about music, the depth of this work comes as no surprise. Like the Bee Mask release, it begins with chunks of noise, but this time it is what sounds like traffic noise, signifying the beginning of some sort of journey – inevitably, a journey through time as much as anything else. On a piece like the epic ‘Light Float’, he adds layer upon layer, element after element, shaking them to creating a complex, colourful, suspension, the patterns of which you could study for hours, and always find something new – or indeed something old. From amongst slowly-shifting drones and fizzing electronic pulsations there will emerge a Oneohtrix Point Never-like melody, bubbling to the surface like a memory from the depths of the unconscious mind, before it returns once more to the opaque. With this evocative and inventive mixture of sounds, Mullane, like Madak, has dubbed himself into this particular spectrum with some aplomb.