The composer Paul Baran first came our way with his 2009 composition Panoptic, a release which impressed us mightily with its rigour, economy, and highly original ideas. We conducted an interview with him for TSP#19 where the clarity of his ideas was evident. Now we have 2014’s The Other (FANG BOMB FB024), another equally impressive suite of works which I am once again assuming form a complete coherent composition, rather than something to be read as an assemblage of ten separate “tracks”. Right away I must say it’s a desolate and chilling listen. Never content to settle for a meaningless, process-based drone or a flailing session of string-plucking instrumentals, Baran plans, edits, composes; he fills every available moment with additional surfaces and textures, such that each nightmarish episode is populated with samples, voice recordings, and improvisational touches emanating from his team of talented collaborators. These include violinist Sylvia Hallett, cellist Sarah Whiteside, Sebastian Lexer on keyboards and programming, and the Euro-improvisers Axel Dörner, Werner Dafeldecker, and Lucio Capece. Ad-hoc teams or groupings of players are deployed as needed to create anxious and dissonant string quartet suites, such as ‘Himmelstrasse’ and ‘Britonia’, eerie denatured brass playing on ‘Dissent’, or fugues of ambiguous noise like ‘The Zone’, apparently realised simply by Gordon Kennedy’s drum programming and the heavily treated flute of Richard Craig. All of this continues the methodology used on Panoptic, where collaborating musicians were directed in accordance to his very clear visions and schemes, rather than just assembling in the room for a pointless “jam session” of celebrities. Baran knows exactly what he wants to do. The same focus and concentration is in evidence here, so much so that The Other feels like it contains enough musical and conceptual ideas to fill a triple CD.
Baran also continues his critical survey of the United Kingdom (and indeed the rest of the world), observing society, politics, and culture. He doesn’t like what he sees. Panoptic specifically drew on his grim experiences working for a call centre, from which he expanded the idea of the open-plan office into the metaphor of a prison, a prison where like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, we have become our own invigilators and warders in a systematic cycle, participating in the limitation of our own freedoms. The themes of The Other are not quite as explicit as that, although the composer in his press notes provides a list of current affairs headlines that are enough to furrow the brow of any libertarian, including “student protests, riots, Neo Liberalism, fear, nationalism and Geopolitical sum games”. Baran is never so crass as to compose explicit lyrics that clearly expose the folly of Western civilisation, but he does provide some useful signposts. One of them is ‘Dissent’, where for some 60 seconds we hear a hideous babble of voices from the mob on a drunken Friday night in any given city centre, boorish louts shouting at each other and picking fights. What emerges from this snapshot is sheer terror; he’s captured the naked sound of fear itself. Another is ‘Himmelstrasse’, one of a number of pieces here showcasing Baran’s singing or intoning voice, and it’s a song which on paper ought to appear as a triumphant hymn (perhaps a political march, or a football squad anthem), but instead is sung in a washed-out, dispirited tone. A palpable image of utter defeat and abject despair; the body politic is not in good shape. Most of the information Baran wishes to transmit is encoded in the music however, and virtually every note of The Other is calculated to disturb and unsettle us with its troubling combination of unpleasant mixed harmonies, alienating treated sounds, and disruptions of normal temporal flow (his deep understanding of rhythm – and how to sabotage it – is much in evidence here). Musicians of a political bent from Luciano Berio to Tim Hodgkinson and This Heat have been engaged in similar strategies for at least 50 years now, creating discordant angst-filled music to indicate the parlous state of the world, but few have managed to devise the ingenious sugar-coating to the bitter pill that Baran offers us. Heck, parts of this album – the beat-laden ‘Britonia’, for instance – could easily appeal to a dance-floor crowd, and justify the press claim “not without a touch of funk”. Plus, track 8, titled ‘The Zone’ makes explicit reference to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Many musicians claim to have been “influenced” by this film, its mood, its metaphysics, or even its synthesised soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev, but Baran is one of the rare few who actually lives up to the claim.
However, what characterises The Other is Baran’s long stretches of highly atmospheric and charged compositions of agonising slowness, that could almost be mistaken for ambient music until you start to discern the hidden barbs, traps, and nasty twists that have been carefully layered into the structure. These pieces mesmerise you with the certainty of an evil snake-charmer. They suspend the listener in a sort of amniotic fluid, detaching us from reality; they would make fit music for the daily life of a zombie trapped in a shopping mall, or a hapless commuter unable to find the escalator out of the underground. Uncanny beauty with hidden messages; a cryptic delight. Arrived 11 July 2014, packed in a sombre digipak with its puzzling cover photo. Essential!