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Cipher: Elemental Forces

John Kelman By

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Cipher: Elemental Forces On Cipher's third release, Elemental Forces, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis and bassist Dave Sturt create soundscapes that are much more than simply background music. Augmented by percussionist Steve Hubback, they explore music that's reliant on programming and looping, but still manages to retain a spirit of adventure and interaction through real-time sonic manipulation and improvisation—making it as engaging of the mind as it is soothing of the spirit.

Travis seems to be popping up everywhere these days. He's a relatively recent addition to the proto-psychedelic jamband Gong, opening up their live dates with a set of processed and looped solo flute documented on the vinyl-only release Eleven Bowls of Acidophilus Flute Salad (Tonefloat, 2006). He's joined Soft Machine Legacy to replace the recently deceased Elton Dean. He's in demand by everyone from Norwegian pop singer Anja Garbarek to Porcupine Tree, and has released a series of solo albums, including the jazz-centric but Canterbury-informed Earth to Ether (33 Records, 2004). Sturt is no less busy, between work with the revived progressive rockers Jade Warrior and assorted folk, Celtic and dance projects.

Both are talented players, but here the emphasis is on atmospheric lyricism, not chops. While Hubback can be counted on to create rhythmic foundations, they can often be unorthodox in nature, as all his percussion instruments are self-made. On "Beyond All Things and "The Sea Flows, the propulsion comes from hammered harp, though on the latter piece Steve Reich-like saxophone pulses can also be found. Elsewhere gongs, bells and chimes are used to create texture or gentle rhythm.

But Travis and Sturt utilize a wealth of sonic manipulation, so it's just as likely to be a single bass chord that's shifted from lower to upper range in a rhythmic pattern at the touch of a switch and then looped, as on "Spirit of the Void. Looping allows Sturt to then layer a more organic bass groove, supporting Travis' soaring soprano sax alongside Hubback's shakers. Travis' system of ambitronics enables real-time sampling, adding harmonies on the fly in ways so natural and unpredictable that they sound as if multiple players are interacting.

That this English Arts Council-funded work can be performed live as part of a multimedia event is a testimony to how far the integration of technology with music has come. "Into the Air finds Travis on flute, creating loops and layering improvisations on top that are then harmonized, creating a rich canvas that's augmented by Sturt's fretless bass swells and Hubback's gamelan-like bells. That so few can create a sound so orchestral, where movement evolves almost imperceptibly but inevitably, is the real magic of Elemental Forces, an album that's rooted in ambient music but is more dramatic and interactive in scope.


Track Listing: Beyond All Things; Solid Earth; Spirit of the Void; Shiki; Into the Air; The Sea Flows.

Personnel: Theo Travis: tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute, clarinet, loops; Dave Sturt: acoustic and electric basses, sound design, programming, loops. Featuring Steve Hubback: gongs, hammer harps, cymbals, drum, percussion sculptures.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Burning Shed | Style: Ambient


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