There is a tendency, among music critics, to emphasize anything even vaguely related to experimentalism. For them, any album that smacks of avant-garde is either ‘a step forward’ or simply ‘beyond’. The trajectory, the direction and what boundaries the sound has allegedly trespassed are details that are almost always left undisclosed. The end result is that there is no critique, but instead an endless succession of attributes, excerpts and frustration. Not all innovations constitute avant-gardism and, we know it all too well, not all that sounds weird is innovative.
Take this album, for instance: is it an honest attempt to re-elaborate old and well-established concepts or, as they would say in the land of music criticism – one where all that glitters is pure gold – “it is an incredible effort that transcends the purity of song-form as we know it”? I’ll go with the former. And the fact that that is my own take on the record has got nothing to do with it being my preferred choice. Because it is just a matter of common sense. See, take four music experimentalists, put them in a (late, very late) gothic church and give them complete freedom. They will spend most of their time generating an indefinite number of sustained drones.
Enharmonic Intervals (for Paschen Organ) is an album recorded in a single day in Circle’s hometown, Pori, on Finland’s west Coast. The environment is the beautiful Keski-Porin Kirkko, which is an exotically sounding denomination for what is, instead, one of the dullest names ever given to a building used for Christian worship: the Church of Central Pori. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
But if you know Mamiffer (Faith Coloccia and her partner Aaron Turner, of Isis and Old Man Gloom fame) and if you think that Circle’s Alotus was a masterpiece, then you will be glad to know that Jussi Lehtisalo and Mika Rättö constitute half the ensemble, here. And they know what needs to be done.
However, too much inspiration can kill the best ideas. A work that lacks something in the contingency department, Enharmonic Intervals revolves around the marvellous Paschen Organ that stands out as a fine example of what air can do when it flows through the right channels. Composers Félix-Alexandre Guilmant, César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor: all of them owed their careers to the technological innovations introduced by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who – to put it bluntly – perfected the dynamics of the pedals and the voicing techniques. The Church of Central Pori and its stones do the rest: the music that this ensemble creates has a liturgical quality to it which, in turn, provides the drones (take “Kaksonen 1” or “Vessel Full of Worms”, for instance) with an array of attributes all ranging from ‘spiritual’ to ‘oneiric’. Choose one and you’ll get the picture.
There is a problem with consistency, we said. And this becomes particularly clear if one listens to the beauty that is “Tumulus”, whose very essence has been finely branded with the Swans logo by the slow and inexorable cadence imposed by an undefined urgency. The same cannot be said if we take into consideration less ordinary experiments like “Kaksonen 2 (Artemesia)” or “Vessel Full of Worms”, which roam free of any percussive lead and end up in a territory of pure improvisation and musical impressionism. And what does a track like “Parting of Bodies” do on an album like this? The synths sustain an emphasis that is inexplicably broken by Turner’s controlled screams and guitar distortion. Great, but why here, why now?
There is no discipline, on Enharmonic Intervals. It unfolds on a precariously (un)balanced texture suspended between minimalism and noise, high-pitched squeaking buzzes and soothing drones, pleasant harmonies and post-urban brutalism which, quite paradoxically, make this record a perfect starting point for those who want to approach the more experimental sound of contemporary music. It is definitely worth a listen, but it is what it is: four brilliant minds with the right tools, in the perfect place at exactly the wrong time.