Monday, June 30, 2008

The Black Vortex

Recently I've been listening to three (out of twelve) of Andrew Liles' Vortex Vault recordings, released on Beta-Lactam Ring. Liles' discography is huge, and includes recent stints with Nurse With Wound and Current 93. His earliest recordings are from the mid-1980s, but I didn't run across him until his 2001 release on the Infraction label, based in Ohio and home to some of the more interesting ambient music. His first album that really clicked with me was The Dying Submariner, subtitled "A Concerto for Piano and Reverberation in Four Movements", and its companion The Dead Submariner, which used bowed guitar instead of piano. Both albums are wonderful drone pieces in our regular rotation, with The Dying Submariner being among my personal inspirations for its source in the piano.

I was thus very curious to hear the installments of the Vortex Vault, which Liles describes as "in part a collection of unreleased, unearthed and dusted down material from the vast Andrew Liles archive of unused studio material," and which appears in Beta-Lactam Ring's Black Series. In addition to Liles, this series also features releases by Maeror Tri, Silverman, Aidan Baker, and a host of other artists. The releases I've seen all have very dark cover art, with similar colored obis, are limited editions, and have the CD enclosed in a special black wrapper inside whose only marking is the words "Black Series" and the number of the limited edition. Liles' albums in the series all have different hand shadows and sets of Chinese characters on the cover. Based on information from Liles' web site, the albums were released in consecutive months over the course of a year. I'm not sure if there is a logical order to the Vortex Vault; I have parts two (Black Hole), three (Black Beauty) and twelve (Black End).

Black Hole is perhaps the most conventional of the three, thirteen short instrumentals. Liles doesn't use as much reverb and other effects as many ambient artists, even on his "ambient" pieces (such as An Uneventful Afternoon), which gives the album a more human touch, not as many machines taking the various musician roles. Often there is a simple melody line, repeated over and over, with other instruments or noises in the background. Bad Vibes Waiting Room, for example, uses something like a bass guitar to play a simple two-bar melody, with occasional melodic and textural variations throughout. He combines this melody with vibes and some very spare noises. Three minutes and it's over, without wearing itself out or spinning out to something new. This pattern affords considerable variety, whether he uses loops from old records (Hello Pharoah), melodramatic soap-opera gestures on electric organ (Sequential Dreaming) or even sequencers that wouldn't be out of place on a Klaus Schulze album (Humiliated). The tunes range from soft drones (An Unspoken Narrative Regarding Institutional Abuse) all the way to a semi-African jungle rhythm (Without Anaesthesia). Because each piece is so short, the album almost seems like a sketch book, which is of course the theme of the Vortex Vault as a whole.


Things take a decidedly weird turn on the third volume, Black Beauty. For one, although there are still a couple of short tracks that would have fit nicely on Black Hole, there are two much longer tracks, each clocking in at sixteen minutes. In addition, some of the music is considerably more abstract here. The opening track, Dead Roses, is a wispy electroacoustic piece, with a couple of instrumental reference points with some percussion and a few trumpet licks, but which otherwise would fit comfortably with some of the more subdued work of the French-Canadian acousmaticists on the Empreintes Digitales label. On the longer tracks, he has time to show how his drones and melodies transform themselves into each other over time. For example, on All Things Bright and Beautiful and Corrosive, percussion scrapings and boomings with extended resonance mingle with garbled and otherwise treated vocal sounds, finally joining with a melodic loop played on a gamelan. The other long track, George the Chemist, uses slow loops combined with more constant and ominous drones, with a loop played on flute and percussion floating in the middle.

The last volume, Black End, goes even further off the deep end. Liles shows his penchant for black metal (a "black" phrase that somehow didn't get used for a title in the series) in the track As On a Dung Hill, a truly morbid poetry reading by R. K. Faulhaber recalling the lyrics of the more obsessed black metal artists. Liles has expressed a love of metal in interviews, and we also get some deranged surf guitar (played by irr. app (ext.)'s Matt Waldron) of Kojack Without The Hat. Most bizarre is the last item on the disc, a thirty-nine minute excursion entitled Kay-Loong-Meu-Tuk (The Begining of the End of the End of the Begining of the End) [sic], which is divided into 95 tracks ranging in length from …  well, it's hard to say. For the two shortest tracks, iTunes reports the time as "not available" and reports the two longest tracks at more than 15 hours. There's some serious f***ery going on in the CD's table of contents. Also notable is that Black End is the only Vortex Vault CD that is not available at emusic, Amazon, and iTunes. The piece itself is quite lovely, moving through watery field recordings, drones, a minor-key melody looped on the cello that segues into Auld Lang Syne on bagpipes, sampled choirs and orchestras, power tools, all combined in a fitting epic to close the suite.

What comes across through the three Vortex Vault albums that I've heard is a dissatisfaction with any individual genres, but a healthy curiosity and exploration, a refusal to get pinned down in any single area of music. I come away from this set with the highest admiration for Liles, and I look forward to hearing more of his music in the future.  The Vortex Vault is available from the usual suspects, or directly from Beta-Lactam Ring.

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