AMN Reviews: Jeff Surak – AllSilver [Zeromoon zero202]

A long time in the making, AllSilver is a collection of provocative sounds from DC area experimentalist Jeff Surak. Surak appreciates and purveys what many of us simply ignore in our sonic environment; the title of the first track on the album, Love and Production, captures something of Surak’s aesthetic: love of the harsher sounds unloved by most, and production of raw sounds from the rawer materials of Dictaphone recordings, old synthesizers, lo-fi radios, mechanical objects, and a defiantly detuned zither. AllSilver is an album that draws on digital and analogue electronic technologies alike to produce an overall sound that’s consistent with Surak’s particular brand of lofi artfulness. Sometimes this sound encompasses expansive audioscapes, as in Love and Production and the lush, undulating drone of Nicéphore Niépce; it can also take the form of the granulated textures of And the Sun Will Eat Itself, or the mysterious percussive sounds that punctuate Keep Dancing After the Music Stops. The Fence is an abrasive bit of post-industrial scrunge—the sounds of machinery in extremis; Zawawa channels the ghost of a broken short-wave radio tuned between stations. The album’s centerpiece is its closing track: the epic, twenty-minute-long Scattered Lie the Saints, a complex drone piece that mixes Berlin-school sounds with a crackle and hiss reminiscent of a tinny transistor radio—debouching into the nothingness of a long-fading echo.

AllSilver comes as a digital download or as a very limited edition CDR that includes two bonus tracks; in either format, the album is a good introduction to Surak’s work. It also is a companion album to Surak’s AllGold, originally released by Staaltapes in 2015 and reissued this year by bluescreen.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jeff Surak: naming the trees [Zeromoon]; Beau Finley: Processing [11] [Bandcamp]; TL0741: Refractory [HC3 Music HC3TL0CD6]

For a good number of years—good in both senses of the word—the Sonic Circuits organization, through its annual experimental music festival and monthly concert series, helped nurture the DC area’s experimental and electronic music communities. Sonic Circuits may have ceased operations in 2018, but the music underground here continues to maintain an active presence. Three new releases bring us up to date on the work of a troika of the scene’s veteran artists.

Jeff Surak was the curator behind Sonic Circuits; he’s also a sound artist with an eclectic and extensive catalogue of work. On naming the trees, release as both a digital download and a limited edition cassette, he pursues the not-terribly-gentle art of noise in two ten-minute-long slabs. In his live performances as well as on record, Surak tends to favor brutalist strata of raw sound, and there’s much of that to be had here. On left hanging he deftly layers the abrasive sounds of prepared autoharp and the clicks, scratches, and pops of prepared turntable against a background of electronic washes and bell-like drones; on the title track he crafts a tension-filled, dark ambient atmosphere out of throbbing synthesizer tones. Bracing, uneasy listening.

Contrasting with the predominantly harsh sounds of naming the trees is guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Beau Finley’s Processing [11]. Although some of his live performances have involved walls of densely abstract, electronic sounds, Finley’s specialty is euphonic, tonally centered ambient music with well-defined melodic content. Processing [11] is the eleventh installment of a year-long project in which he set out to create 365 minutes of music in twelve monthly sections, with each section having the same number of minutes as days in its month. Starting with the key of C in January, he moved through the circle of fifths at the rate of one key per month. Processing [11] brings him up to November, and if it’s November, it must be B flat. After a very brief prelude outlining the key, the music moves into a hymn-like passage whose chords float slowly over a rich bassline before dissolving into an upbeat, quasi-Baroque chord cycle complete with synthesized arpeggios and counterpoint. And that’s only on the first piece; the remaining four weave together drones, upper chord extensions, unconventional cadences, and off-center sequencing into a suite of music that is really quite beautiful and affecting.

Refractory is the new release from TL0741, the solo synthesizer project of Patrick Gillis. In addition to being a performing artist, Gillis was a key, if largely behind the scenes, part of the Sonic Circuits organization. Refractory follows 2014’s Circulation and is worth the five-year wait. The basic tracks were laid down at live performances in DC-area venues between 2014 and 2017 and subsequently altered, amended and added to in the studio. A colorist with a particularly keen ear for juxtaposition, Gillis draws from a rich palette of timbres recalling the vocabulary of classic electronic and tape music, which he twists and creatively distorts into something uniquely his own. Gillis’ is music that naturally lends itself to synesthesia–a soundtrack for a strangely appealing dream world full of flashing lights of unknown provenance and enigmatic metallic objects receding over the horizon.

Daniel Barbiero