Review of Below Sea Level [12k1071]

A Closer Listen (.COM)

The deluxe edition of Simon Scott‘s Below Sea Level has much in common with the deluxe edition of Richard Skelton’s Landings. Each is an investigation of place and sound – for Scott, the British Fens – and each is accompanied by a book of observations and field notes. Each is also of extremely high quality.

Scott’s book begins with a Rothenburg quote: “Finding music in nature lures us into experiencing the echoing wonder of the world, how beautiful it can be, how much meaning can be found in the most unusual of places.” Scott proceeds to write about his personal connection to the Fens, as well as its history and the history of field recordings. We must admit a deep affinity for the section in which Bernie Krause speaks of active listening as the way “to accurately perceive the sonorous world.” We learn of the sound sources used in Scott’s recording: wire fences, steel bridge supports, creaking ice, the water boatman (or backswimmer). A series of photographs, each like an alternate CD cover, grounds the observer through light and location.

And yet, Below Sea Level is not a strict soundscape. Sources and seasons are blended, instruments are added (acoustic guitar, harmonica, thumb piano, toy sitar) and the whole set has been fed through a computer. It’s not Scott’s intention to be literally accurate, but spiritually accurate. To this end, he attempts to reflect the spirit of a setting and its convoluted history, along with the mingled nostalgia and hope of its human neighbors. ”Why did it take me so long to reconnect?” he muses, offering better wishes for his children, that as they grow, they will continue to feel the wonder of the wilderness.

The music is at times soothing, at times contemplative. At times it is even mysterious, especially when the sources are hard to identify: a water wheel and xylophone duet in track five, a persistent backswimmer in track four? And yet, despite its natural connections and high points, the primary disc lacks one essential aspect: wildness. The tracks beguile, each in turn, then fade into silence, civilized and proper. This tamed element is purged on the superior live rendition, which is available as a download; be careful which edition you order so you don’t miss it. On this edition, many of the same sounds are present in the same order, but they flow together, teeming with life. This piece of sound art is ten minutes shorter and (thankfully) lacks applause; we only know it’s live because it’s billed as such. The field recordings benefit the most from the rendering, pushed further up in the mix and tumbling over each other like hours in the Fen’s day. The acoustic melodies are gone, replaced by well-integrated drones.

Despite the fact that Scott has released numerous recordings over the course of decades – first as part of Slowdive, then on his own – Below Sea Level is to this reviewer his most important work. Not only is the disc thoroughly researched, impeccably packaged and engagingly played, it speaks to a higher cause: the preservation of (and in this case, possible restoration of) sound environments. For many listeners unfamiliar with such issues, it will represent the inception of an idea. Below Sea Level is more than music, more than sound; it’s a quiet revolution.

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