Review of Below Sea Level [12k1071]

Fluid Radio (UK)

It’s difficult to know how to best approach Simon Scott’s latest album <i>Below Sea Level</i>. The music here is rather magnificent that’s true, but is so much more than the evocative collection of environmental field recordings, luminous drones and ephemeral guitars found on this record. <i>Below Sea Level</i> is above all a project where Scott reconnects with his own childhood while exploring the natural and sonic environment of the Fens, a marshy region in eastern England. The project is documented by a superb 80-page hardcover journal entitled “An Exploration of the Subterranean Fenland Environment”, which is divided in three parts: an essay where Scott writes about the overall project, a small collections of photos taken in the area of the Fens and some reproductions of the diary he used on the road while recording the acoustic ecology encountered in the Fens. Even if the essay is fascinating in its own right, often full of insights and moments of illumination, it’s perhaps the diary excerpts that bring a sheer sense of honesty and at times fragility to the project. Sometimes very personal “To collect these sounds is to rediscover the past, the Fenland past and my own childhood” or light-hearted “Day trippers are something I’ve learnt to avoid”, these notes give a rather unique and humble insight into Scott’s ideas throughout the creative process. Overall the journal really works as a singular entity, and the impeccable design echoes the consistently thoughtful and emotionally charged qualities of the writing.

<i>Below Sea Level</i> sees Scott coming back to the Fens where he spent weekends as a child, and starting to immerse himself for long periods of time inside the natural environment, slowly attuning himself to the aural landscape “It was as if the environment was beginning to accept me being here and wanted to collaborate with me now that I’d patiently learnt to actively listen”. From spending so much time into this once wetland area that literally shrunk below sea level after it was drained several centuries ago, Scott comes back with a unique collection of sounds that he’s careful to not call his “I don’t own these sounds, they belong to the Fenland environment, not to me. My music is of this place but not taken”. He’s also found a way to rediscover his past “This landscape resonated inside me as memories of my childhood”, which evidently informs the creative process and brings back to the fore some moments of child-like wonder, both expansive and intimate. In “_Sea Level 5,” the guitar akin to Seaworthy’s <i>Map in Hand</i> plays sporadically against a backdrop of sun-lit pastoral field recordings, while some toy instruments reverberate on the surface of a hazy droning texture thus recalling imaginary childhoods. When towards the end of the track, the tones of a music box merge with the purity of delicate sine waves, one is left with this deep impression of reconnection that Scott seems to strive for in his diary. This feeling of reconnection will run throughout the album but will branch out sideways on many occasions as if responding to the elusive pull of nature.

The Fens’ ecosystem is evoked through numerous field recordings used much more abstractly than on ‘environmental’ albums such as <i>Autumn is Coming</i>. <i>We’re all in Slow Motion</i> or <i>Two Lakes</i>. Through process and transformations, the aural landscape is turned into a encryption of the place that is both connected and alien to the Fens themselves, but is then liberated from its locality and free to connect with listeners unaware of the site specificities. In doing so, Scott hopes to “deepen their perceptual awareness of the acoustic world around them”. In “_Sea Level 4,” the birds, insects and aquatic species can be heard it’s true, but mixed very low within the deep droning mass, so the natural environment is revealed in a sort of aural halation effect that radiates from the surface of sound. Throughout the album, Scott suffuses his drones and loops with a constant iridescence that charges the music with a disembodied glowing physicality and a sense of receding that play an ambiguous game of presence and absence, inviting the listener to come even closer to hear what this reconstructed landscape has to say, thus recalling Scott’s belief that “the natural world is far more complex than our simple human assumptions determine”.

Sometimes reconnection with the past and reconnection with nature are conjured all at once like in “_Sea Level 2” where the warmth of joyful memories and the vivid expanse of the marshes coalesce into vast droning fields receding towards the horizon. In those occasions, the worn-out textures and filtered field recordings work like an instagrammed recollection of a long-gone childhood whose shadow finally resonates with the quiet beauty of the land. And it’s perhaps what Scott has secretly looked for all this time: when patiently recording and documenting this place of the past, immersing himself in nature, and composing this music, he has finally reached back to this sort of seminal moment where he was at one with the world, simply inhabiting the moment. So <i>Below Sea Level</i> dwells in nature as a way to come back to this unique moment in time, a moment of innocence and beauty, whose radiance can finally illuminate the present.

“The world as a child is usually perceived as larger than it is in reality” – Simon Scott

– Pascal Savy for Fluid Radio

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