It is entirely appropriate that Sounds Are Active's fiftieth release since its inception in 1999 should be Elevating Device by Nels Cline and G.E. Stinson , two of the freer spirits of contemporary music. This recording, like much of the music from this label, provides challenging listening with music of a spirit unrestrained by convention and devoid of cliché, leading to a totally individualistic listening experience. Here, beauty and austerity slug it out without either one forcing the other into submission.
For forty-four minutes Cline and Stinson sculpt in a single track sonic waves which rise and fall in intensity. Static hum and electronic drone come and go, and futuristic, sometimes other worldly sounds are grounded to a degree by guitar. Whether grungy power chords or gentle ruminations in nature, the six-string sounds are reassuringly familiar in the midst of such ethereality.
It may be tempting to post a warning against adjusting your sound system at times, particularly at four minutes in, as the stuttering static sounds like the fruitless tuning of an unresponsive radio. Nevertheless, the edgy lull that follows is absorbing, especially with a quiet drone in the deep background underpinning synthesized alien sounds. There is a weightless quality to this music which conjures up deep space; drone, electronic feedback and bleeps sound like galactic beings communicating some earnest message.
Grungy guitar is accompanied by piercing static interference at around twelve minutes. Then it fades gradually, and clearly defined guitar emerges from the quiet. The atmospheric reverie brought about by two gently interlocked guitars is reminiscent of the Robert Fripp and Andy Summers collaboration which produced I Advance Masked (A&M, 1982). There is, however, something altogether less tangible and less familiar about Elevating Device, like floating through a robotic dream.
Blasts of static at twenty two minutes dissolve the reverie and steer the music into a darker place, where the rising intensity of waves of sound gather menacingly. Fractured sounds and dissonant synthesized noises run amok for a full five minutes before dissipating. The peace that descends is beautiful by comparison, though pregnant with forewarning. A softly throbbing drone holds sway for several minutes before hypnotic guitar enters, and slowly a sense of inevitable climax builds.
The arrival of a second guitar and its dark power chords signals the prelude to a conclusion. For the last five minutes the sound intensifies, and all the elements merge in a sonic mass without easily recognizable form but with potency aplenty. There is the sensation of a rocket igniting and at the critical juncture, realizing liftoff, then, as the music fades, receding into the depths of deep space.
Elevating Device falls outside of any obvious category, as does much of the music from Sounds Are Active. Experimental and adventurous may describe the intention behind the music of Cline and Stinson ; edgy, powerful, and provocative may well describe the results.
Personnel: Nels Cline: electric guitars, electronics; G.E.Stinson: electric guitars, electronics.