Review of Sublunar [12k1072]

Music Is Good (.ORG)

The opening track of <i>Sublunar</i>, Kane Ikin’s debut full length release on 12k, clearly announces the theme and aesthetic of the album, and at the same time sets the standard very high for what follows. The album title places us on the ground; the track title, “Europa”, directs our gaze toward the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (Io, Titan, Hyperion, Rhea, and Oberon are still to come). The track opens with a gently oscillating wash of haze and static, out of which a hesitant, lurching rhythm emerges, sounding like something assembled from various sources and precariously held together by sticky tape and string. The rhythmic effect is somewhat reminiscent of some of Giuseppe Ielasi’s off-kilter beats. A wobbly, ghostly, faintly choral note like a decayed tape recording of music from a decades-old science fiction movie adds a mournful melodic line and a further duality – are we listening to signals from distant moons (as the accompanying video seems to suggest) or the voices of our own past dreams of the future?

Another track title, “In the Arc”, hints at a tension between exposure (in orbit?) and security (in the ark?) that is reflected in the music’s frequent combination of mysterious, alienated sounds and nostalgic aural warmth. While the titles and alien noises point us out into shadowy distances far from the sun, the overall aesthetic, meticulously crafted yet for the most part anything but cold and pristine, often seems to tether us to the ground and/or the past, giving many tracks an aura of dusty nostalgia. This interplay of name, sound, and mood offers room for the mind to play. Listening to “Europa”, I find it easy to imagine some lurching steampunk contraption laboring its way reluctantly across the surface of a distant moon. Yet it would be a contraption glimpsed across time and distance, seen only through grainy footage displaying things already past, through signals that have crossed the void to reach us, their sublunar recipients, in eroded form. The music becomes the soundtrack added to its silent progress through the vacuum; we listen wistfully through an obscuring haze of time and space.

Less literally, the album called to my mind John Donne’s mention (in his poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning) of “dull sublunary lovers” who are overly tied to physical presence and feel the loss of eyes, lips, and hands as a sore loss. Donne was evoking the cosmology of Plato and Aristotle, according to which the universe beyond the moon’s sphere of influence is unchanging, perfect, eternal, while life under the moon, the sublunary, is physical, subject to change, variance, and decay. Here again distance and loss are in play, and again Ikin’s music is indeed firmly sublunar, built from a shifting bed of quavering notes, unsteadily swaying rhythms, and clouds of sonic dust. According to the release notes, the sounds from which Ikin constructed Sublunar ranged from “grimey 78’s, uncovered from his grandfather’s shed, to early drum machines and analogue synthesizers, reel-to-reel recorders and anything within arm’s reach that can be hit, plucked, or bowed”. Again we are sublunar listeners, earthly, tied to the sheer materiality of sound and its decay, yet finding a reflected beauty in its grainy contours.

I love music that makes me think. But if all of this gives the impression that this is an album for which the ideas need to carry the load, think again. The music itself is captivating. The tracks are variations on a consistent sound palette, but move through subtle shifts of mood and rhythm. Some envelop the listener in slow, hypnotic pulses and undulations. Some are darker, with creaking, percussive echoes and murky grumbles. Some surround a gaseous drone with mysterious chimes and drips. Some, like “Oberon”, another album highlight, foreground quavering plucked strings set to a sedately ambling rhythm, yielding a whimsical, plaintive effect. The music often sounds delicate, fragile, as if listened to on a vintage radio that might give out at any moment. The sense of fragility draws the listener in – it invites attentiveness, and the impulse to preserve something precious on the edge of decay.

While working from somewhat familiar motifs (some gently pulsing passages call to mind a dustier, more post-apocalyptic Loscil; in other places the quavering tones are reminiscent of some of Stephan Matheiu’s manipulations of aged recordings), Ikin offers here an imaginative album with its own distinctive personality. It continues the remarkable a string of releases from 12k that manage to sound at home on the label even while each differs greatly from the last. It is an excellent piece of work, an important one even, highly recommended for thoughtful sublunar listeners.

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