When It’s Time To Let Go
Patterned Air Recordings CD/DL
The Wire, April 2017
by Simon Reynolds
Perhaps the uncanny persistence of hauntology shouldn’t be that surprising. A genre based around the stubbornness of memory, around that ontologically suspect and temporally elusive non-entity known as the ghost, wasn’t likely to shuffle punctually offstage once its time in the spotlight was up. A dozen years after its emergence, hauntology’s themes and traits have long since settled into a stable repertoire (mind you, the same could be said about many genres covered in The Wire: improv, drone, extreme metal...). But original prime movers like Ghost Box, Mordant Music, and Moon Wiring Club still put out good, sometimes great records (eMMplekz’s last long-player was one of 2016’s very best ), while newer operatives like Robin the Fog’s Howlround project and the label A Year in the Country find fresh angles on familiar fixations.
From this second (or is it third?) wave of spectral audio action, Patterned Air Recordings might be the most alluring and intriguing of a busy bunch. Barely a year old, the label is the creation of Matt Saunders, whose prior discography includes the 4AD-signed duo Magnétophone and solo alias Veil, and who currently records as The Assembled Minds. As far as the music’s outer husk goes – its framing and wrapping – the signifiers that Patterned Air traffic in fall squarely within hauntology’s known terrain: that wired / wyrd mixture of homespun analogue electronics, acoustic textures and invocations of English rural landscapes (with a tinge of pagan past). There’s also allusions to childhood and pedagogy (Cukoo’s Woodland Walk features a schoolteacher’s voice and Nature Studies titles like “Pine Cones” and “Hedgehog”). You’ll often also find a vein of Nineties technostalgia: Assembled Minds’s Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts, the sporadic jungle-breakbeat flashbacks in RunningOnAir’s superb self-titled debut.
Another hallmark, which Patterned Air shares with fellow nu-skool imprint A Year in The Country, is a quaintly exquisite attention to design and packaging. The label’s four releases so far come in see-through pouches cutely fastened with a leather twist-tie (easy to lose, be warned) and into which are stuffed an array of brightly-coloured inserts, including manually ink-stamped cards and printed tracing-paper squares.
So far, so not entirely unpredictable, then. But the music itself is less easy to pin down, at its best wriggling loose of the H-zone nearly entirely. Patterned Air’s latest – When It’s Time To Let Go, by Lo Five, a/k/a Neil Grant from the Wirral peninsula - is their most unusual. The opening track “Infantile Progenitor” stirs up memoradelic flashbacks, certainly, but not to any of the standard coordinates (Seventies spooky children’s TV, Public Information Films, et al). Rather the glinting chord-chimes and gauzy keyboards teleport me to the middle Eighties – Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole. Those evocations may well be unintended, accidental side effects of the instruments and effects Grant is drawn to, but the effect for me personally is potent: taking me back to the self I was then - awkward, ardent, unprotected and yet wide open, teetering on the brink of starting my life.
Throughout When It’s Time To Let Go, the music is cloaked by a lambent ambience of blurry reverberance (again mid-80s redolent: specifically, “Driving Away From Home” by It’s Immaterial). The sound is like a watercolour with a little too much water in it, capillary rivulets of paint mingling into each other. Bright but muzzy, the smushed-into-each-other textures can sometimes feel alarmingly intimate and up-close, a glare that makes you want to shield your ear’s gaze. Field recording sounds –unsourceable rustles and creaks, laughter, a stream rippling over stones - weave through the tone-palette in a low-key, unobtrusive way that adds to the un-clarity of the mix. Often there’s a school music room feel: instruments like wistful piccolo, woodblocky percussion, bell-sound twinkles, the plink of mallets against glockenspiels or xylophones, are juxtaposed with more technotronic vamps and pulses. Walking a winning diagonal between variety and homogeneity - different grooves, same sound - When It’s Time moves through the early-Nineties bleepy pump of “Sabre Contusion,” past the wavering-off-pitch ambient lull of “A Pivotal Moment,” into the clanking Cumbrian dubstep of “Death to Innovation” and peaking with “Almost”: Harold Budd plays an out-of-tune piano, with the sustain pedal pressed full down, from the bottom of a crevasse, turning each chord into a craggy overhang of echo.
Every Patterned Air plastic baggie includes a label statement about the record printed on a colourfully illustrated insert. Somewhere between a liner note, a record review and a press release, these are uncredited but obviously written by Saunders himself. The framing is always evocative, always appropriate, but sometimes I wonder whether this move - common to hauntology as a whole - of establishing the terms on which a recording is heard and understood might not actually be holding back the music to some degree, or at least, overly containing it. If, say, Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts had a totally different title and the tracks inside weren’t called things like “Summoning of the Rave”, would you actually think of Nineties techno-pagan vibes while listening? It may well be the case that this mise en scene – Spiral Tribe meets The Wickerman- was what guided Saunders towards the strange sound he achieved on what remains the label’s best release so far: shrill, peaky synth-yammers edging ecstatically into dissonance. Yet once it’s served its catalytic purpose, does retaining and articulating the concept add surplus value for the listener, or does it actually confine and slightly diminish the alien-ness?
The same goes for Lo Five. The Patterned Air text refers to sounds “suffused with the traces of people and places humming with life, or emptied of everything... human lives caught up in the passing of time, the passing of people and things... the passing of place”. Yet the music doesn’t feel especially elegiac: its emotional palette hews mostly to primary-colour, primary-school naiveté, suggestive of total immersion in NOW. If there’s nostalgia at work here, the yearning is for a time before the emotion or sensation of nostalgia even exists in the child’s consciousness. What I’m wondering, then, is whether it really is “time to let go”. To shed not just hauntology’s specific (and slightly shopworn) set-and-setting, but also the wider tendency rampant amongst today’s conceptronica artists that impels them to over-determine the reception of their music. Time, once again, to let sounds be.