Ground Truths

Extraordinary record from Mark Harwood is Offering (PP50), released on his own Penultimate Press label and assisted by the great Graham Lambkin. Harwood is the Australian genius who runs Penultimate Press in London, a label which has released LP records by such marginal greats as Astor, Tim Goss, Small Cruel Party, Lambkin, Moniek Darge, Francis Plagne, and many others – and his online shop is a go-to site if you want fascinating reissues of rare gems from minimalist composers, free improvisers, and art music of all stripes.

I think Offering is fantastic, but it’s also deeply puzzling, hard to fathom, and bound to alienate a good number of listeners; staggeringly original and personal sound art too, where the only terms of reference I have must include The Shadow Ring and certain solo records of Graham Lambkin. Yes, Lambkin did the mix and editing here, and both of them collaborated on the cover art, and we could point to superficial coincidences – the use of acoustic guitar played in a certain – erm – non-standard way; the minimal lyrics; the use of perplexing ambient and pre-recorded sounds; the voice intoning cryptic remarks or simply used as an instrument. But if anything, Harwood has gone even further than the records of The Shadow Ring, that astonishing underground UK combo from the late 1990s, where Lambkin’s richly poetic words and images were recited with grave deliberation by Darren Harris. Those records were always strange, but Harwood’s Offering is so stark it makes them seem lucid and rich by comparison! I mean that he offers almost no clues as to his intentions, meaning, or content; although some recognisable words may appear, he’s equally happy to growl, moan, and produce sheer gibberish with his mouth, as if there were an inner voice writhing inside him and trying to get out, clutching at any possible means of expression.

The acoustic guitar playing, when it appears, is deliberately clunky, amateurish; it’s sheer genius. He’s not attempting to play conventional songs, nor opting for a “lo fi” vibe, but it’s simply one more element in his overall artistic vision. Then there’s percussion, what sounds like finger cymbals or chimes, sustained for a very long time as if attempting to rekindle the spirit of Tibetan Red by means of spiritual meditation. And also the use of tape collage, if that is indeed how it was produced; tape manipulation deployed to create highly surprising collisions of sound and event, not intended for shock value, and certainly very disorienting for the listener, and yet not intended simply for shock value. It seems to me this is the best way Harwood has of expressing his truth. This evidently requires that things grow odder and more absurdist as the record progresses; it was strange enough to hear a marching band sample on side one (shades of the first Faust record), but the second side takes us even further into the depths of this strange dream-like episode.

“An album of songs about geography and placement and the way people choose to move across the surface of our planet,” is Lambkin’s succinct assessment of this record’s theme. He also highlights the simplicity of the way it was made, a simplicity he himself has adhered to in all his work – on record, and in performance, he has often made art production seem so obvious that it’s a wonder no-one else thought of doing it. This simplicity is what gives Harwood the “freedom and clarity of vision” to express himself, and thus he “sees the world as truth, as if on a TV screen”. The listener may find this a puzzling and disconnected record on the surface, but keep listening – at length the core of meaning may reveal itself, through the oblique and unusual methods used in its realisation. Full marks and highest possible recommendation for this unique art statement. From 21st February 2022.