Low Flying Branches

Long overdue notice for Hollow Gravity (PUER GRAVY PG-002), a “solid gold” LP of excellent electronic music from the lovely Philip Sanderson which we have held here in our vinyl entrapment jaws since July 2012. As you all know Sanderson was the founder of the Snatch Tapes cassette label around 1979-1980, and as such left his mark on the cassette tape “scene” which is now coming to be internationally understood as a time of great import for underground music generally. Snatch Tapes was among the first, if not the first, to publish the work of avant-droner supremo David Jackman, and also provided a vehicle for the early recordings of Storm Bugs (Sanderson and Steven Ball). We’re lucky that the Vinyl On Demand label has reissued much of their output, since an original of their first EP Table Matters is now hard to find and extremely pricey. In an ideal world, I would countenance paying a collector’s price for that record, which I regard as their Santa Dog – a vital document of abrasive and unsettling invention in DIY electronics, voice loops and noise.

Hollow Gravity is I think the third solo release Sanderson has put out under his own name, if we count the 2005 CD album Seal Pool Sounds and the 2009 download item, Carriage Return – the latter a murder-mystery spookout of a tape replete with voice fragments among the disturbing noise elements, and packaged such that the owner could “rebuild” it as a cassette tape if required. Seal Pool Sounds was a little overlong and uncertain for my tastes, but Hollow Gravity is bang on course, as solid as a Minuteman missile aimed directly at the enemy’s urban industrial targets and leadership bases. Right from the moment you hold the package in your robotic zinc claws, you know you’re plugging into a special occasion, the restrained design of the black and gold silkscreened cover depicting a Da Vinci corkscrew helicopter on the front and a more 20th-century inspired collage on the back, where printed circuits collide with letters from old fonts inside a grid that’s like a fortress blueprint. These images evoke strong ideas of “invention”, a resource Sanderson has never been short of in his career. Even the labels are unusual; laser-etched, tactile, 3-D, they create a mildly mesmerising strobe effect as your turntable spins. Apparently they’re based on designs for manhole covers. Already a requisite number of “industrial” boxes are being checked, but somehow an exceptionally British and quirky take on the industrial genre.

Musically, each of the 12 tracks offers its own small world in a glass jar, glimpses of a miniature universe generated in a laboratory. I can’t help feeling this echoes the cryptic title, with its hints of a “hollow earth” theory or some other wayward take on physical science. This is particularly true of the compelling and slightly neurotic long tracks which close out each side; both ‘Bodysnatcher’ and ‘Spaghetti Tension’ have an eerie hypnotic power that Asmus Tietchens himself would be proud of; here be density and a thought-through complexity that you won’t find very often in contemporary electronic music. Indeed very little on the LP seems throwaway or frivolous, rather the result of lengthy contemplation and the application of compositional craft. In places, Sanderson makes judicious use of an echo or overlay effect of some sort, that allows him to repeat certain synth phrases into impossible glissandoes and never-ending halls of sonic mirrors. This is not unlike some of the experiments he’s been conducting with film and video recently, which repeat image segments or generate intense kaleidoscopic patterns into infinity, until the seeing-eye brain is overwhelmed with visual information.

Elsewhere, at least two “poppy” tunes occur on side two, whose sound and melodies will appeal mightily to the Radiophonic Workshop fanbase, while Sanderson’s skill here shows many junior pretenders that attempting to imitate Delia Derbyshire is not as easy as they suppose. ‘Crystal Set’ is explicitly intended as “a nod or homage to our electronic forefathers”, and so I suppose is ‘Chance Operation’, a track which samples the speaking voice of John Cage into a fragmentary network of stand-alone and forlorn electronic sounds. Another track on A side uses voice samples from an old exercise record, and is an index to the playful and humourous side of Sanderson, also shown in his punning and witty track titles and subtitles (my personal favourite is “chronic irritable vowel syndrome”). The overall effect of the LP for me though is abidingly strange; Sanderson has delivered himself of some very odd, eccentric and disquieting electronic music on this album, and its moments of warmth and whimsy are counter-balanced by long stretches of near-chilling desolation in sound. 100 copies only of this essential item, released on this vinyl-only label run by members of Vas Deferens Organization.

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