Sunday, April 24, 2011

Deaf Center - Owl Splinters (2011) REVIEW

Norway again.
Deaf Center is a duo comprised of Erik Skodvin (cello) and Otto Totland (piano), "Owl Splinters" is their second full album, six years after the Lynch/Badalamenti influenced and already excellent "Pale Ravine". Both albums, and their very first EP "Neon City" in 2004, are issued by Type, a worth checking record label. Deaf Center's members are quite busy in their own right, mostly Erik Skodvin who is, besides his solo musical projects, promoting other artists through his own label Miasmah. Debut "Pale Ravine" already set the duo apart from other artists who are bridging the gap between atmospheric electronic music and modern classical coloured with dark textured orchestration. "Inspired by old silent 8mm film reels, the historical architecture around them and the call of the alluring Norwegian landscape, the duo set out armed with microphones to record whatever they could to capture these feelings. Sounds from battered old records, cash registers, broken machines and a half-dead piano were all blended into the mix to add a warm, homely depth to the recordings." (1) This description comes from the liner note for "Pale Ravine" on the publisher company itself but it gives a very accurate idea of what there is to listen to on that debut and what sets this duo apart, the last few words actually sum it all "a warm, homely depth to the recordings." Too often, atmospheric electronic music, or ambient, possesses unearthly quite alienated aesthetics, it's like music made out of thin air, or thick air concerning so-called dark ambient pioneered by Thomas Köner, to name just one, and explored further by plenty other artists, among them Norwegian Deathprod, aka Helge Sten, and audio-virus contaminator for the mighty Supersilent. In my ears, ambient music, as brilliantly created and multilayered it can be, always sounds quite hollow, a bit like computer-animated films where characters and landscapes look almost transparent, like made out of glass. Even if lesser and lesser so, same for ambient music.

Deaf Center are interspersing their music with homely and natural found sounds indeed but their main musical sources are made out of acoustic instruments, piano and cello, which give their compositions very organic and woody flavours. Contrary to many other artists evolving in the same musical genre, Deaf Center as dark as they could appear always sound rather warm, earthy, even chthonian, it's music that find its roots, in the literal sense, in the underworld to elevate itself like a sequoia in order to scrape the sky, the clouds, the moon and the sun. Besides, their recording process on "Pale Ravine" is that of home recording, the sound is at the same time enveloping and fragile, bordering on lofi but with a very hifi quality, as paradoxical as it may seem. Furthermore, Deaf Center's music is highly cinematic, Angelo Badalamenti's influence on "Pale Ravine" is unmistakable but the texture is way deeper and richer than Lynch' composer of choice's compositions.

"In contrast to Skodvin and Totland’s previous work, ‘Owl Splinters’ was recorded in a studio setting (Nils Frahm’s Durton studio, to be exact), and the lo-fidelity, haphazard techniques of their early recordings are now all but gone." (2) Another quote from the publisher's liner notes. To take a cinematographic metaphor, Deaf Center abandoned the Super 8 format and opted for the Super 35. However, like the greatest movie directors, if "Owl Center" is a much more ambitious and accomplished piece of work than its predecessor, Deaf Center have retained much of its clair obscure ambiences and refined soundscapes, I mean, the duo gave themselves the opportunity to truly expand on their incredible talent without losing an inch of their idiosyncrasy; Skodvin and Totland's dusky and deep dark compositions have been transformed from sketches, like on "Pale Ravine", into "glorious widescreen spectacles" (2). Deaf Center also gains in focus with this sophomore album. "Pale Ravine" sometimes sounds like unfinished business, the tracks on that album are also generally shorter than on "Owl Splinters", which gives a somewhat fractured feeling when listening to it. "Owl Splinters", on the contrary, is impressively cohesive while remaining at least as varied as its predecessor.

Now imagine yourself on a boat, cruising along the coast of Norway, the water current is rather busy, your stomach is climbing slowly up to your throat. At the turn of a sill, your bewildered eyes discover a wide deep fjord, huge vertical skyscraper cliffs welcome you and your companions between its rocky palms. That's the opening track "Divided", introduced by a rough bowed cello then more tonal low register strings are added and a wall of sound slowly rises up through multi-layered cellos with low bass and grainy electronic strata going crescendo accompanied by ghostly faraway monk choir till the slow booming finale. Your boat is floating on calmer water now, silence surrounds you, you're spending your time admiring the landscape. The short pastoral piano piece "Time Spent" offers a rest from your first bewilderment. But something dark is awaiting, a darker note (cello?) appears underneath the surface. The recording process of the piano is worth mentioning, not that I know much of it, I couldn't find any note about it. There is the singular impression to be inside the instrument when listening to "Time Spent", this is so close mic'd that each note seems to frailly shivers while sounding as huge as a glacier; everything crackles and creaks, the mechanism of the piano is audible, just like your boat would sound. Neoclassical would be the first term applied to such piece of music, on my side I would rather refer to the very cinematic and evocative piano style of third-stream jazzman Ran Blake with his Bernard Herrmann's "Vertigo" rendition.

Dusk arises, rain appears, drumming over all surfaces, pines, rocks, water, boat deck, garments, skins, and the tide is rising. You've lost your landmarks : "New Beginning (Tidal Darkness)". Crispy electronic sounds erupt, one heavy piano chord booms, then another, and another, like the night sky opening up above you, the only tangible sight around. Darkness envelops you further, it's getting creepy. Some unfathomable clicks and hums are dancing around your ears. The piano resumes, circular, walking by, chilled but gloomy. Extra layers of bowed and slightly electronically treated cellos multiply themselves to slow down before the end. Everything get suddenly quiet, just a little rain, the piano enters the scene, arpeggiating slowly, watery sounds, bubbles burst in the distance, metallic flatware or bells tinkle. The cello meanders like a snake towards your eardrums and erase the piano arpeggios. Sub-bass groaning pushes through from underneath, three long repeated Badalamenti-like notes, while a persistent high-pitched and distant electric feedback irrevocably dives over your head, the menace is now real, whatever that is. Layers of sounds are added upon layers, strata over strata, a sky high cliff of sounds. The music is here more like a huge drone, extremely textured and build up, a fantastic multi-layered soundscape which seems to know no limit for climax. This is one of the 'noisiest' moments on the album, but that noise is closer to what nature can create than men could, it's the power of nature, the cliffs, the sky, the trees, the sea, and your little boat seems suddenly a miniature rowing boat occupied by ants. You're no more this fabulous natural landscape witness, you're inside every part of it, these pine trunks, those waves, these raindrops crashing upon whatever, those fucking rocks, and you can not move, and you don't want to move, you're just vibrating, you're just ears. That kind of seizure suddenly lets go of you to get back to the beginning of the track : quietness, little rain, piano splashing more than arpeggiating. When it ends with the rain as only sound, you wonder. This was "The Day I Would Never Have", over ten epic minutes which title makes me indeed wonder.

The next track shows that nothing will remain the same afterwards. A very raw, grainy, almost fleshy solo cello give the tone, and it's a cruel one. It seems you're witnessing some savage ceremony, "Animal Sacrifice" this is. Once again, the listener finds him/herself inside the instrument, everything there is to hear is in there, the wild anarchic gutsy notes (strings on a cello have cores originally made out of gut - sheep or goat), the vibration of the strings, the hissing of the bow, the resonance of the cello wooden body, but there is something happening outside there, are these chicken or children chuckling? Disturbing. This track is real close to total improv music and goes diametrically opposite to anything called ambient or neoclassical, everything's atonal, spontaneous, raw, tense, gritty and even grim. "Fiction Dawn" offers relief, the sun is rising, solo piano returns for it's slowest walk, pensive, contemplating, melancholic. It works a little like a mirror to "Time Spent" before, the other side of it, the side your boat and yourself shouldn't have reached, a terrifying side.

The second longest track follows, "Close Forever Watching", and it seems like it's time to get back away from this horrifying heart of darkness. The droniest track on the album, very slowly building up layers upon layers of bowed cello, low frequency electronic drones, some light piano tinkles above, the huge cliffs of the fjord come at sight again, but it looks more like the sailing of doomed souls crushed by the monumental landscape. Until one unique and loaded piano chord booms like some dark star landing, the cursed fjord opens both its large rocky palms and the wide sea appears on the horizon. That sudden piano chord exploding in the middle of the drone noise really makes me shudder each time it appears, I never know when, the track is build in a way that even if you know it will irremediably appears, that moment remains a surprise at each listen.

The conclusion "Hunted Twice" is mindboggling. Statics introduce the track, crackling, electric, like being close to some generator, maybe some thunderstorm is pending, or the radio transmission is fucked up. Finally not. Through the electric tumult, the cello walks by towards you, fingerpicked instead of bowed, some last statics and the cello is replaced by the piano, following the same three notes pattern with light melancholic comments with the right hand, accompanied by rather soft bowed cello twirling around until both instruments stop but still vibrate. A last thud (the keyboard lid shuts down? the piano pedals are released?) is heard and the album ends leaving the narration open, because indeed, what does mean "Hunted Twice" in this context?

The sequencing of this album is masterful, it works totally as a narration, the tensions and reliefs are carefully laid out, inside each track and surely throughout the record. "Owl Splinters" is a dark piece of work, and its coldness is that of the Norwegian landscape, like standing in the shadow of one of these cliffs, feeling the chilly sea breeze through your hair, the snow melting eventually, the first snowdrops show their little buds. This album is closer to some "Rites of Spring" and spring can be painful, carny, hurtful, corky, a transformation or a reborn, Phoenix as a season.

A long description for an album worthy of a novel, at least a novella, and I felt like writing my subjective impression, as clumsy as it looks. The music could be the soundtrack for a novel, but that novel is already written, I surreptitiously mentioned it above : "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. For me, these guys created its musical equivalent, or some sonic Norwegian version of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". Yeah, nothing less. I haven't been that mind-blown by an album since Supersilent's "6" in 2003, another Norwegian band.
Norway forever.

9 out of 10

(Dedicated to Marc NotthefckngdesignerJacobs without whom I wouldn't have discovered this diamond.)


  • Neon City EP (2004) - 6.5
  • Pale Ravine (2005) - 7.5

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