The Last Unmapped Places on Earth

Got a couple of cassettes released in August 2020 from the UK label Moonside Tapes. The label has been active since 2017 and operates roughly in the areas of drone, ambient, electronica, and glitch, and apart from the customary Bandcamp streaming it specialises in creating cassette-only albums for consumption.

Prismic Passageways (MS015, I think) is credited to Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony. It’s something I would categorise as an “ethnological forgery”, a term I borrow from Holger Czukay, and part of a micro-genre of records that purport to represent the music or sounds from an unknown or lost civilisation. One example is the obscure 2009 LP by Anaphoria called Footpaths and Trade Routes, the work of Kraig Grady and part of his ongoing series of invented ethnic music from the imaginary island of Anaphoria. I wrote about it in Issue 20. Fictions like this appeal to the side of me that likes reading Borges. The liner notes to Prismic Passageways allude to this imagined island called Maitrii, a place which “may in fact have been the last remnant of the sunken continent Aninomola, believed to have perished by flooding some five millennia prior to the birth of the first known civilizations of Mesopotamia.” Come to think of it, that’s more like Sun Ra and Alton Abraham than Borges, but you get the gist.

What we know of Maitrii comes to us from the research of anthropologist Dr August Maynard, a fellow straight from the pages of Jules Verne or Rider Haggard. To represent the music of these peoples – about whose practices or society we are told very little, apart from some vague hints about shamanism and communing with the dead – the tape divides into two suites, one side for “Trance” and the other for “Meditation”. Hugely enjoyable drones, muffled and distorted, along with tribal percussion and hypnotic beats, are the result, with the A side creating a very convincing foggy vision of some forgotten sun-drenched Shangri-La that never really existed. If you enjoy the movie Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and the Popol Vuh soundtrack for it, you’ll be in your element here; don’t blame the creators if you wake up from a trance hours later and find your entire body smeared with white mud. The B side is no less effective, with a chanting voice moaning and sighing into a swamp of heavy reverb and gradually creating songs, loops, and rhythms; and dreamy keyboard tunes also enhanced with delicate reverb and echo effects, the melodies kept off-balance and slightly off-key. These short episodes and interludes seem to probe the space between invented ethnic instruments and digital technology; a species of primitive-futurist creativity. Simple, but highly effective; what’s not to love about this?

Second item is Closing In (MS014) by mhva, a Norwegian act already represented on the label with previous releases such as scend and spir. The A side contains a number of short 2-3 minute tunes, adorned with evocative and poetic titles hinting at travel, intimacy, and personal matters expressed in handy symbols. The music is no less romantic; mhva has a line in wistful, nostalgic piano fugues that doesn’t quit, and these are bolstered with everything from ambient tones and digital glitch to field recordings, vague drones, and balmy synth runs, plus the varispeed device is applied at times such that tunes unexpectedly change pitch and tempo. The effect of all this is to project a very dream-like, unreal atmosphere, which is a nice place for an imaginary picnic; there may be sunlight and friendly shorelines in among the changeable weather patterns.

I found much of this music sits just on the right side of sentimental; if the light hits it the wrong way, we could easily have a cloying emotional morass on our hands. I’ve no problem with the extensive layering of tracks here, and I enjoy the heart-sore yearning feeling that’s implied, but none of the sounds are especially innovative, and the tunes lack real shape and purpose. I won’t say they’re merely musical doodles, but neither do they convince us as substantial watercolour paintings. On the flip, we have two much longer tracks, the nine-minute ‘Cantus’ and the epic ‘Water’ at 15:58. I was hoping the broader canvas might be used as an opportunity to develop further musical ideas, but all we find is the same approach to the material is just extended for longer durations, with increased application of echo, muffle, and distortion. At least on ‘Water’, some attempt is made (however prosaic it may be) to emulate the sound of the rolling waves at the seashore in musical phrases that adopt a rise-and-fall motion.

Not unpleasant; but if compared to Prismic Passageways above, Closing In lacks depth, has no specific meaning or intention, other than to indulge a meandering cruise down instrumental waterways like a canal barge.

Both the above from 17th August 2020.