Friday, January 30, 2009

Emeralds - What Happened (No Fun Productions CD)

So now that the Brainwashed reviews are starting to get posted up, I'm going to repost some of them over here when they apply. Basically if the review reads smoothly and is a little more rigid in form than usual it's probably from there... soon I'm going to be posting over at Foxy Digitalis too, so those will probably get thrown up here as well. The six reviews below are all from there. And no, the blog isn't just going to become a vehicle for those things. More blog style writings on the way soon, sans shirt and tie... anyway, right ho, on with the show.

2008 was a big year for Emeralds. Solar Bridge (released on Hanson) garnered the most widespread acclaim for the trio yet and all three members—guitarist Mark McGuire and synth players John Elliott and Steve Hauschildt—continued their solo explorations with numerous releases that garnered further praise. What Happened sees Emeralds further honing their sound as they hearken in what is sure to be another fruitful year for the unit.

The album opens with "Alive in the Sea of Information," an eight minute excursion which fits snuggly into Emeralds’ previous oeuvre. The trio is unflinching in their alliance with the forms of '70s synth explorers like Cluster and Klaus Schulze, and they display their fine capabilities in that realm here as the soft ringing of Hauschildt's Moog gradually thickens with Elliott's Korg MS-10 bass tones. The liner notes state that "this recording is a collection of improvised songs recorded live to tape 2007-2008," an important indicator as to the group's process and one which is on fine display here. Each line undulates along in a soupy mix of analog psychedelia that captures perfectly the group's capability for spontaneous improvisational composition. As long vocal drones are spread across the weighty synth backdrop it does become a song of sorts, exploring its parts with a careful and confident hand

One of the paradoxes surrounding Emeralds is their close-knit affiliation with the underground noise scene. Despite the high-fidelity and overt beauty often explored on their works, the unit has continued to sharpen their abilities in the tape, vinyl and CD-R culture of labels such as Fag Tapes, Ecstatic Peace and their own Wagon and Gneiss Things imprints. This influence is readily apparent on "Damaged Kids," which starts off with synthesizer gestures that bubble about among thick and mossy tones, sounding more like John Olson's remixes of Elliott's solo work than the traditionally vibrant Emeralds sound. As it builds however, it meshes into a series of mobile synth gestures that are carried along by McGuire's guitar pulse before lightening its load in favor of crystalline drops of guitar tone and synthesized garble that drift off into a quickly pulsing end. Given that the group takes 15 minutes for the piece, it is still surprising how frequently they are able to smoothly transition from one mode to another.

"Up in the Air" is, as its title suggests, a lofty affair that serves as a brief intermission in the album. It is the most overtly gentle work on the disc, providing a respite before the next two tracks make up the last half of the album. "Living Room," the longest piece here, begins with an organ-like line that recalls Terry Riley or La Monte Young's "The Well-Tuned Piano" more than Neu! or Tangerine Dream. McGuire's guitar lends a church bell quality to the work as it drifts toward a starker, more static area. The trio's abilities as a whole are on display, with each member circumventing the whole with well placed and unselfish playing far beyond the maturity of most musicians in their early-twenties. Which isn't to quantify Emeralds' talents in terms of their age; these improvisations would be impressive for anyone. The proximity of their work to synthesizer legends of the past serves as testament to this. Never mere impersonators, the group manages to find its own worlds of sound through the means of decades past, but with the ears of today.

The closing "Disappearing Ink" slides across the speakers with monolithic grace as it unwraps its own sonic world. McGuire's guitar tones stand out in their lulling rhythms, staying warm without ever slipping into post-rock wankery. As the piece evolves, it emerges as a wall of vaporous, spectral beauty, as rich as an Eno instrumental with the weight of Popul Vuh or Ash Ra Tempel's best work.

In interviews, Emeralds often speak of the importance of volume in their music. To see the group live is to understand the true capacity of their music to physically manifest itself. Too often their albums are heard with this crucial factor lacking. For the complete experience, What Happened is a fine example. Each song materializes as it is meant to while Elliott, Hauschildt and McGuire, chisels in hand, continue in shaping the walls of sound before them.

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