Half Measures

Dead Nor Alive

Daniel W.J. Mackenzie & Richard A. Ingram
Half Death
GERMANY MIDIRA RECORDS MD056 CD (2019)

From somewhere in the murky depths of cyberspace seeps this collaboration between Brits Daniel WJ Mackenzie and Richard A Ingram (not to be confused with their non-initialed namesakes of course). Although active in copious creative capacities (e.g. film music, installation and the visual arts), Mackenzie is known for his bone for the drone, while Ingram plays piano. These complementary activities provide crossover points for the pair, who bob and weave in a pantomime of amicable compromise throughout this (warning: cliché imminent) ‘soundtrack for an imaginary movie’.

Granted, the cap fits: it’s a ‘narrative’ in the sense of an unfolding mystery and ‘cinematic’ in its mood of slow-burning melodrama. By turns Deaf Centre and Deathprod, this ‘dystopian’ series of non-events knowingly wields ambient tropes like sepia piano chords (‘Creeping’), softly pulsating synth pads (‘Two Futures’), searing crescendos (‘Half Death’) and indistinct interludes (‘Victoria I (Rain)’). And it makes for a compelling listen or ten. It’s issued in a 200-copy edition with black and white photography and all the trimmings, although my promo copy consists of a nondescript disc in a sad paper sleeve.

Reductio ad Incendium

Yann Novak
Slowly Dismantling
AUSTRALIA ROOM 40 RM4112 CD (2019)

US ambientologist Yann Novak applies the rules of reduction in his take on the genre, foregrounding not the sound but the spaces around, which he characterises as ‘zones of liberation within which a spectrum of identity is formed’. In practical terms, this entails the hiving off and germination of discrete sonic elements within a neutral terrain; a minimalism not to be confused with one of ‘static’ ambient music that simply lacks detail or event, and further still from the extremes of heavily layered ‘power ambient’ or its ‘lower case’ counterpart. In other words, it is not simply the bourgeois refusal of excess but a removal to a position of safety from which to observe and grow.

The opening theme (‘All Things End, Sometimes in Fire’) and cover art both relate to a pivotal event in Novak’s history: the burning down of the Hotel Washington, Wisconsin, in 1996. For around 20 years the hotel and its bars had been a haven for the gay community and its destruction thwarted the 17-year-old Novak’s expectations of ‘exploring (his) newfound queer identity’ within. The sense of loss was compounded by the emergence of what he describes as an ersatz, ‘mainstream version of gay culture’. The artist’s experience of subsequent events was one of alienated introversion, but a growing sense of acceptance over years culminated in this unconventionally ‘queer’ recording (as he relates it). It’s a soft, subharmonic roar of an ambient album – Thomas Köner for bedtime perhaps – and quasi-hauntological in its hiss-laden proposition of a stifled future. I’ve been unmoved by similar practitioners, but Novak manages to hit all the right tones here.

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