Review of 1897 [12k1053]

Tokafi (.COM)

In school, everybody had their clearly designated position. There was the bully. The nerd. The geek. The hunk. The victim. In his class, Cameron Webb was probably the daydreamer: The guy who, while everybody else was conscientiously analysing texts about ancient Egypt, would look at the pictures and imagine himself standing there among the Pharaos, marauding Tut Ench’s burial chambers and supervising armies of slaves as they carried massive bricks the size of refrigerators through the hot and sultry air. Then, just when his flirt with Nofretete at one of these decadent Nile-parties seemed to be going somewhere, the teacher would call him back to what is unfortunately falsely accepted as the “real world”, summoning him to order and shaking his head in disbelief about how someone could loose himself this way when there are so many exciting historical dates to be learnt by heart.

Even daydreamers eventually turn into adults, but that doesn’t mean they need to automatically grow up and become brokers or accountants. Webb for one never lost sight of the child inside, founding Seaworthy with Sam Shinazzi and Greg Bird as an outlet for romantic, brittle, heavenly harmonious and unironically post-nothing soundscapes. A mere year after their 12k debut Map in Hand was released to great international acclaim in 2006, Webb was appointed artist in residence by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Arts Program and spent three months at an old army bunker. Embedded into lush strips of grass, brushwood and wetlands, the Newington Armory precinct represented an unoccupied memory hotel, a frozen archive of untold stories absorbed by its solid red sandstone walls for more than a century.

You can easily picture Webb wandering through the endless corridors and empty halls of the bunker, sipping on Nescafe at an empty refectory and falling asleep on an uncomfortable bunk wrapped in thin blankets that smell of mothballs and dampness. Photos shot during his stay show him staring out of wooden windowpanes, pointing his microphone at an old cargo carriage and following the train tracks down to where they disappear into the gaping mouth of a narrow tunnel through a small hill. You can tell just by looking at these images that it is very quiet, with just the sounds of wind, birds and wild animals tentatively infiltrating the breathing void. Everything smacks of solitude here, of remoteness and non-worldliness. Few would regard this place as a well of inspiration.

And yet, when Webb returned, he had captured several hours of sound. Apparently, he must have heard songs and stories where others experienced nothing but silence. Organising them into distinct pieces and then building a narrative around these tracks took another twelve months. It proved to be a tremendous challenge to retain the mood and personality of the place he had just explored while breaking down epic episodes into concise compositions while digging for meaning in myriads of short fragments. The tender sonic quilt of 1897, however, astoundingly achieves this seemingly impossible mission with apparent ease. In three short field recordings, Webb puts his audience in his place, filling the bunker with discreet noise and then waiting for it to reply to his queues in tongues of reverb and echo.

While the drone pieces, ranging between light-filled fields of tranquility and resonant sheets of metallic shimmer, display a nuanced feeling of purity and delicacy, it is the pairing of two extended Guitar episodes at the beginning of the album which proves to be decisive for the sweet enveloping effect of the album. A simple melodic motive acts as a guideline, dividing longer stretches of improvisation and drawing from Blues, classical composition, Jazz and Psychedelia alike. Very gently, the music seems to be leaving physical reality, almost imperceptibly shifting towards the heart of the precinct, where darkness is illuminated by whispered secrets waiting to be uncovered. All sense of time is lost in these borderless excursions, which raise hopes for a full album with solo Guitar pieces by Seaworthy some time in the future. After entrancing his listeners with beauty, Webb subsequently brings the album to a comforting close with a string of warm ambient pieces, ebbing away into the forest on one and a half minute finale “Outside”.

One could of course say that none of these things would be apparent without reading the press release. It is certainly true that 1897 doesn’t rely on recognisable field recordings as much as many other comparable releases from the drone community – at least not in the sense that sounds are turning into the actual core of the music. Of course, the unique acoustics of the bunker add a natural sensation of majesty and harmony to these pieces, but they, too, never become overwhelmingly conceptual: It is still the musicians, not the building, playing the music here.

And yet, in an extremely emotional and important way, knowledge about the backgrounds of these recordings does add to the listening experience in that it suddenly places these already sensitive works in an even more intimate context. If just a handful of photographs on the 12k website are capable of conjuring up intense feelings of yearning in the spectator, it is hard to imagine the effect on the few lucky fans who managed to get a hold on the collector’s edition which comes with a 64-page full colour booklet. With Cameron Webb, after all, the narrative behind the sounds is where it all starts and his singular capacity of translating dreams into music turns him into an artistic alchemist. Such a shame about that aborted Nile-party – Nofretete would have been charmed. – By Tobias Fischer

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