Sonic Rituals (MIGRO RECORDS MIG003) is a team-up between two sound artists, the performer-composer Guy Harries and the Japanese musician Yumi Hara Cawkwell. They both play all manner of instruments, add lots of voices, and process their rich drones into a thick concoction not unlike the studio concoctions of Reto Mäder, the Swiss master of macabre drones. I’m not familiar with either player, although Yumi has in the past added her skills to a number of projects involving English musicians whose work I love and admire, including Hugh Hopper, Chris Cutler, Charles Hayward and Geoff Leigh. This record has some tasty moments where things gel nicely, the sonic layering never lets up for a second providing a very dense aural surface for your exploration, and Yumi in particular is clearly throwing everything she’s got into the collective effort.

The drawback for me is the general aura of solemnity and self-importance that comes across, particularly on the side-long track ‘The Ecliptic’, where the tasteful “ethnic” flutes and clarinets are tootling away amongst a sea of third-rate electronic buzz, wordless chants and groans issues from both voices, and the tone becomes almost insufferably “earnest”. This may be because the record’s declared aim is something to to with “the concept of ritual”. Every piece, they tell us, is completely improvised and, more to the point, the artists operate free from “pre-conceived ideas” that might fence them in; yet they still want this sense of “ritual” to give shape and meaning to the work. In other commissions they have been given, specific themes with a ritualistic association have included Freudian psychoanalysis, post-apocalyptic scenarios, and “futuristic shamanism” – whatever the latter may be. And yet despite this specificity, they insist that “the meaning attached to these…is always open to the audience’s subjective interpretation.”

Personally I find this a wishy-washy attitude. The musicians seem to want to have it both ways. If there’s one thing I know about ritual, it’s that it has structure. Yet this record insists on ritual without structure; the sense of “meaning” without actually doing anything to earn it, or even communicate it. It gives them too much license, because whatever they do they anticipate the audience will react in a private, unknowable manner. I’d be much more interested in learning about their method, for instance if the performances were actually informed by a deep understanding of genuine and meaningful rituals; there might be a pattern to Harries and Hara Cawkwells’ work which we could use as a metric, a ground truth towards understanding it. As it is, we have only vague yet very loaded phrases; it’s extremely hard to assess the success or failure of these wispy musical statements. This vagueness extends to the cover art. I’m disappointed they can’t live up to their promise. From 4th February 2015.

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