AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett – Diabolus/Ras (2022; Bandcamp)

Excellent!  Even though it’s been only a few months since her last full-length album (the brilliant Heterotopia on Persistence of Sound) we are again served with another drop of un-released or, in this case, out of print music from Natasha Barrett.  I’ve been doing ongoing coverage of her works, both past and present on AMN (Just type her name in that upper right corner search box if you want a refresh or, just start here and work your way backwards…her catalog is extensive.) and I couldn’t be happier about the regular cadence of releases.

This one, while short (two pieces, “Diabolus” (1999) and “Ras” (2000) clocking in at about 21 minutes) is nonetheless, superb.  I would say both these works fall into the “mixed medium” realm (or electro-acoustic if you prefer) of the more general category of Computer Music. Both works incorporate live instrumentation (in this case, percussion on both and voice on “Diabolus”) along with the Acousmatic component of computer-generated manipulations.  Also, of interest is that some of the sounds are augmented electronically by the performers themselves in real time.

Not being a creator of this music, or a musician of any kind, I still find it a fun exercise to read her technical program notes.  Even though much of it is beyond my pay grade, I occasionally glean interesting insights into her work ethic and the creation of the pieces themselves.  These can be found on her website.  The notes for “Diabolus” are particularly revealing for the inspiration and source material of the text.

“Diabolus” is typical Barrett…which is to say typically excellent!  From her website:

The causes behind periods of ‘diabolical havoc’ often go unexplained and fall into the realm of superstition and hearsay. Inspired by two sources: the work of the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, which is a collection of fiction combining satire, irony, and humour; and dynamic solar activity which, although factual, we know little about, I designed the materials and structure of Diabolus to capture these periods of unexplained ‘havoc’.

Barrett then goes on to explain that solar winds are related to sunspot activity, which in turn are linked to periods of “increased havoc in society on Earth”.  I love the way she combines two completely disparate topics/sources to germinate the idea for this composition but, to go even further…the music itself evokes a dark, seething menace that does the red horned beast proud.  As soprano Kristin Norderval emphatically blurts out at one point…

Catch him at once, or he will work untold disasters!

…indeed!  Blame it on the sunspots!

Sonically, “Diabolus” succeeds by spinning up in parts, a very dystopian William Gibson-like techno wasteland while also impregnating the soundscape with a disturbing aura of “something is dreadfully wrong here”. Nordeval’s vocals run the gamut of being fragmented and indistinguishable to reaching a gale force Götterdämmerung level (while also triggering electronic sound files by foot pedals). They ratchet up the drama quotient exponentially. Concurrently, the metal-heavy percussion draws down the chaos while Barrett’s offstage sound transformations are the icing on the cake. Holistically, an evil whisper to a planet cracking scream.

How do you follow that?  Poor “Ras”…

…well, sympathies are not needed because “Ras” follows the same black path.  It may not be as histrionically affected as “Diabolus” but it’s no green grass and unicorns either.

A percussion quartet (with one member controlling sound files) and a 5th player handling live single processing, “Ras” acts like a coda to what preceded it.  So, if “Diabolus” does work it’s “untold disasters”, “Ras” can be looked at as the unsure and tentative rebuilding process.  Sparse metal percussion kicks things off with subtle, yet effectively creepy acousmatic elements filling in some of the open spaces.  A walking tour of a broken place that becomes more dismal with every step forward.

As the journey continues, the open spaces become fewer as the electronics become more prevalent and the percussion assumes a more urgent stance.  A gradual synthetic ebb and flow materializes, and the soundscape begins to achieve a sort of Steampunk assembly line vibe.  It’s gonna take a lot of work to fix the devil’s handywork, but “Ras” does not provide closure, just hope.

This short release is another essential building block in the Barrett oeuvre.  With both these pieces composed over 20 years ago, they have not aged at all…and in fact, they sound as forward-thinking and fresh as anything I’ve heard recently in the space.  My highest recommendation!

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999