Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tidal - Fractal Empire [Sacred Phrases]

Sacred Phrases is a solid, young label specializing in dreamy tones. I'm unfamiliar with a lot of its artists, such as Tidal, but man do the unknowns hold it down.
Tidal is a one J. Billingham, and with Fractal Empire he delivers over an hour of compositions for synth and tape hiss. The first of six pieces, "Taken" starts out with probably the most cynical-sounding atmospheric synth piece I've heard. Nothing about it sounds particularly light or airy despite its drifting tones. On the other hand, it doesn't sound dark or gloomy either. The tone is very dry and hard-bitten, making for a very unusual experience in musical synthesis. Billingham drops in some unintelligible radio recordings later in the piece which certainly don't do anything to lighten the mood. "The Hypnopomp" totally changes things around. Billingham lays down quite a few layers of sparkly melodies that remain far enough in the distance to be a little blurry. It's a great piece, managing to be rhythmic and completely fluid at the same time. It doesn't change a ton over its course but its a real hypnotizer. "Pearl" features slow glistening keyboard swells nestled amongst far off electrical storms. The piece features a slow come down that's quite a bit longer than the piece itself. "Silver Halide Memories" is immediately more tense with a few fairly quiet sounds grappling for control. Once in a while there's a sharp, loud jab of noise to keep you from slipping into the deep zone. It sounds like Billingham might even be playing guitar or something here as there's a badass staccato tone coming from somewhere. The piece isn't incredibly long but it feels pretty epic. Billingham does a great job slowly splintering the piece apart near the end, using more grainy speech samples to pry apart his arrangement. It sounds like there's violin in here, or maybe a synth emulating a violin, either way it really works and adds an awesome punch at the end.
Side B is split into just two pieces, the first of which is the epic "Cascade Interval." Rigid synth tones, stutter and mutter over each other making for an uneasy quilt of melodies. I dig this piece because its forever changing. It retains the same vibe throughout, but melodies and keyboard settings drop in and out over the duration of the piece. A little ways in, Billingham settles into a nice melody but even that doesn't stick around. There's a flute-like keyboard on its lonesome for a stretch of time before being augmented by thicker, jet streams of synth. The ever-evolving nature is what's key here, as Billingham is able to mine a number of different territories while remaining fluid in his navigation. Maybe the best piece of the tape, aside from "Silver Halide Memories." The second part manages to be more lush and more spacious than anything else on the tape, finding Billingham moving freely in between thick, swelling melodies and near silence. He continues to do a good job helming the track without giving any indication where it will go until its smeared conclusion. "Mist" by comparison, is pretty simple. An uncertain rumble abounds next to a cautious keyboard melody. Gradually though it becomes apparent which direction the piece is moving in. The keyboard finds its confidence and skitters along without a look back while drones grumble and groan underneath. Billingham breaks everything off momentarily for a soundbite ("He really is from another world") before bringing the music back briefly and ending on another "(Game's over. You win.")
The tape is probably too long (it could have used a sharper editing eye) but there's some real talent on display here. I think we could be hearing lots of brilliant things from this guy in the future.
The tape is still available from Sacred Phrases along some other cool tapes (I also dig the Sundrips one, which will get a review at a later date). Anyone into the whole cosmic synth thing should definitely give the label a look.

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