We have to hand it to Scott Foust, who persists with his musical projects while at the same time lamenting the diminishing audience interest…lately even his own label Swill Radio has had to scale back its vinyl production operations, and recent releases are being farmed out to other labels. This is a shame, as his music has a lot of strengths, and every LP is assembled and edited with considerable care. Perhaps the general pessimistic tone of his messages (often despairing of society as a whole) and the hermetic nature of his avant-garde music puts off prospective listeners. The most recent release by Idea Fire Company, the duo of Scott Foust and his wife Karla Borecky, is both pessimistic and hermetic in mood, and very sad and enigmatic to boot. Even so it’s a fine set.
The recordings on The Synthetic Elements (CRISIS OF TASTE TASTEY 003) come from 2013 and 2014, and everything has been trimmed to perfection to deliver a lean package with not a wasted moment of music. To some extent I sense IFCO are getting back to their “roots” with this mostly synth and radio music. What I regard as one of their “purest” statements, the 1999 release Anti-Natural, was almost entirely made using synths and tapes, and pushed the possibilities of this set-up about as far as was possible (indeed many listeners found it something of an endurance test). It also marks a move away from the trombone-playing exploits of Foust, represented for instance on Music From The Impossible Salon (2011), an essay at acoustic free improvisation that didn’t quite come off. (Update 25/03, Scott Foust writes: “Music From The Impossible Salon was not intended to have an free improv association at all, although it may have come off that way. I tried to use the trombone on the two tracks it was on in the same way I use the radio.”) For The Synthetic Elements, the duo now confine themselves to playing synths and radio, with Karla’s acoustic piano being used very sparingly to sweeten the deal with her melodic fugues and romantic arpeggios.
On one level, the album represents four experiments in how to vary this simple set-up, repurpose it and redeploy the constituent parts in order to illuminate various angles of the overall theme. These experiments are sandwiched between one larger experiment, the signature tune ‘The Synthetic Elements’ which has been divided into four parts and arranged so that it begins and ends each side. This action alone, a simple editing and sequencing decision, is a master-coup that really makes the album cohere into a mini-movie, a compacted novel. It exploits the two-sided nature of the LP in a way which few musicians still understand how to do. If you think of the first and last track on each side as an opportunity, then an LP offers an artiste four chances to get the listener’s attention, make a statement. If you’re inclined to doubt this, then simply play a vinyl copy of Revolver by The Beatles and see what I mean. This is something we might have sacrificed with the CD format. Of these four set pieces, I do enjoy the sad melancholic air of ‘The Uncertain Lovers’ and ‘The Happiness Hunters’ for sure, and they also hark back in tone to The Island Of Taste LP from 2008, a time when IFCO were so disenchanted with the world their only recourse seemed to be to construct an imaginary paradise in never-never land where they could dwell in peace.
However, the two stand-out pieces for me are ‘The Waiting Room Three’ and ‘The Sinking Ship’. On the former, the bittersweet combination of Foust’s austere, near-acerbic synth pulsations and Borecky’s wistful piano has rarely sounded more effective. Karla comes as close as she will get to providing a boogie-piano stride in her work, which in IFCO terms gives this piece something approaching syncopation. The radio intrusions, drip-feeding us tiny fragments of distorted speech, add a dose of enigmatic mystery that verges on being alarming. Lastly with this piece, there’s the editing and sequencing which provides a remarkable dynamic; the piano drops out and makes a return, book-ending an episode of rather unpleasant synth pulsations, and the whole track tells an abstract form of story.
As to ‘The Sinking Ship’, this one in title continues a preoccupation with maritime metaphors that has been present in IFCO and other Foust-related projects for as long as I can remember; I think he sees the whole of society as a ship going down, and it’s been doing so for several agonising years. Musically, this is the most powerful cut on the album, with its punchy rhythms, stark synth tones, and skeletal piano figure, and what I suppose is an electric guitar (its only appearance on the album) adding the sound of the ship’s klaxon issuing an SOS. Under other circumstances, for instance if Foust lived in Vienna, then the chances are that one of those avant-techno labels like Ventil might have released this track as a 12-incher so it could keep company with Peter Kutin and Asfast in alienating serious-faced European clubbers on that part of the continent. Appearing as the penultimate track on the LP, ‘The Sinking Ship’ seals the doom of mankind (again; for their previous attempt to wave adieu to humanity, see Lost at Sea from 2015).
The cover artwork is a screen grab from a 1932 Michael Curtiz horror movie, its eerie green tint matching the glowing eyes of the black cat on the back cover. These visual clues should also help prepare the listener for a bracing, chilling spin of cold air, packed with impossible riddles and cryptic utterances in musical form. From 11th January 2017.