So I recently discovered Sly Vinyl, a website dedicated to pulling together, from labels around the world, information about limited release runs of vinyl albums. The first thing I discovered late January 2014 was this album by the “Contact Field Orchestra.” Google that and you’ll find information about how the project came together. Apparently (though it could be arch trolling – the story’s too cute, the music too postmodern) – Damon Aaron, the fellow behind CFO discovered a box of tapes of old field recordings (like a century old, ha) by the ‘Contact Field Orchestra’. I don’t really know whether that meant actual music, or … just field recordings of…what, I don’t know. And being a musician he digitized these old tapes then added music, guitar, over top, or underneath, or inbetween, possibly other electronic additions. “Heavy handed noodling” it says on the back cover.
That’s the basic story. I’m not too concerned about whether it’s true and the process of how it came to be. I hope it’s a hoax, that would make it cooler. I’m only here to write about the effect the music has on me. I found it instantly likable, that’s the first thing. The melodies are simple, the whole thing is very low-key. The tracks are all much of a muchness, but once you realize that, I think you realize this is a kind of mood music. It sounds like electronica, like headphone music, but many of the sounds here aren’t particularly electronic sounding. For the most part we get a percussive kind of sound —woodchopper glitch, cotton field glitch, cartwheel glitch, pickaxe glitch, coalminer glitch Add melodica and you get the gist.
What melodies there are, are subtle and simple, but they’re there, not immediate by any stretch, but the tickety-tock beat is what grabs you first. Like I said, it’s a percussive album first and foremost, fiddly delicate glitchy wooden-clocky kind of rhythms. Very repetitive, but that’s fine. You wouldn’t want these to develop into fullblown songs—that would sound tacky. So is it any good? Yes it is. That’s why I’ve chosen to write about it. I’ve played it maybe six times by now, and I’m really starting to admire it. The most amazing thing is you can imagine an electronica artist such as Four Tet spending aeons trying to perfect this kind of music, and yet for the most part it doesn’t really sound very electronic. Oh, the LP comes packaged in very pretty old textured cardboard, with a screenprint cover.
So, I’ll just make a few notes on the sound of each track. While there are 17 ‘songs’ all up, I don’t really think of this of a collection of songs per se. It plays out more like a series of experiments that all run together to create a pleasant though slightly odd mood piece.
Iron Pyrite… this track already sounds too electronic to believe the story behind the music. It’s a very simple, slightly spooky, lowkey affair with squelches and hums and a simple repetitive beat. It doesn’t change and it lasts all of a minute. Title refers to fools gold, which we read as a clue that this isn’t really the ‘gold’ that it purports to be.
In The Cave… is the first major track here, mainly because of the melodica tones which instantly call to mind Augustus Pablo. The rhythm section might just as easily be supplied by Count Ossie & the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. A repeating tribal pattern, tooting melodica, and mildly ominous keyboard and flute tones that create a curious whimsical tune. It reminds me of a track called “Sniffer Dog” from Howie B’s 1999 album Snatch. Arabian feel? Flames, a woman bellydancing, shadows flickering on the cave wall? Something like that.
Tobacco Flower… has even more of a melody, this time, um, say banjo, woodblock tocks, little echoes, or a guitar, playing a repeating figure. It’s very pretty, though short.
Shaman… a low bass hum, a walking clop beat, entirely percussive, like someone playing Tupperware containers with a pair of chopsticks, other electronically enhanced sounds, faintly embedded in the groove. Bit spooky, but ambivalent. Doesn’t really change.
Into The Mine… continues the theme of coalworkers, longest song on the album at a full four minutes. Also replete with an overt melody, simple as it is. Backwards tones, keyboards, all slight and subtle. Lovely.
Man Down… an underwater sound, murky, much more electronic and glitch. One wonders which part of the track we’re supposed to believe is the ‘field recording’. It’s all burbles and bubbles popping, though muffled and really, a very cool sound.
On The Autumn Sea… more snatches of melody, a very simple beat, at least on the surface. The subtlest of melodies. In fact the melody grows into the silent spaces between interjections of melodica. Reminds me of bits of Laurie Anderson’s Bright Red album.
Cart Before The Horse… guitar this time, over some distant eerie whine like some kind of animal on the far side of a lake at night, birds in the trees. Very nice with those birds and a sweet guitar melody. More tick tock beats. This makes me think that with good software and a bit of patience, I might be capable of making an album like this with my limited guitar skills and my infant daughter’s rudimentary instruments – tambourine, xylophone.
Wishing Well… banjo this time, a simple repeating melody, other tiny barely-there percussive elements. I prefer the banjo/guitar tracks, they have better melodies, and the playing has just the right amount of lo-fi wobble to make it all sound authentic.
Lazzyman… opens with an echoey string-plunk melody, another mine-digging, chain gang, rock-breaking percussion line, dreamy faint notes in the distance, a very nice mood piece, with a soft guitar melody. The beats and melody merge well, yet, as always, understated, thoughtful, quite song-like this one, some neat flutey warbles, a lovely gauzy piece with a strong organic feel.
Bailar Phone… bailar is Spanish for dance, so perhaps this twiddly wooden mallet-and-iron-tongs tune is meant as a danceable piece, though the rhythm is repetitive and the melodica or brass instrument blowing oddly in the background conjures up a melody. Little sparks of electronic sounds occasionally bleep and fill in the tune.
Pick And Axe… uses a deep soft bass drum sound for its main beat, tribal, a muffled banjo line seems to inform a simple three or four note lo-fi melody. That’s possibly the first time I’ve heard a sound that sounds like it could actually be a century old. There’s fuzz and distortion on this one, a crumbly fuzzy sound. The piece slowly builds in volume before fading out.
One Trigger… a creeping noir feel, a muffled xylophone, melodica whine, soft electric guitar, slight distortion, a low thump of a beat with pip and pops, staticky, a mildly mysterious vibe. Is this video game music? Could be I suppose. That thought ruins it for me, but you could imagine one of those 3D adventure games, exploring an old abandoned mineshaft, in the dark grey, headlamp illuminating old bits of broken equipment, drips dropping, wheelbarrows, ropes and pulleys, the echoes of miners working their shifts.
Caja… more alien sounding this one, like mining on Mars in the year 2041, another pickaxe and boot on shovel beat, but punctuated by sci-fi effects, a metallic tinkle, an alarm kind of tooting bell sound, all in regular rhythm, again bringing to mind that Howie B album Snatch. This track seems to merge into …
Perigree Campfire… this one and here we get a two note melody, the rhythm gets a little messy and more tickety-boo, a few strums, a few notes on guitar.
Hand Cranked… you can find an amazing animated video for this song on youtube, which illustrates the whole mining/interplanetary nature of the music. This one has a clear guitar tune, very pretty, sort of echoey, melodica intoning behind, repetitive but effective. The video depicts a miner who gets hit on the head by a rock, and seems to go into a weird dream about the future of mechanical industry which winds up with a nuclear device blowing another planet up, whereupon miner man wakes and finds in his hands a cogwheel. Great stuff. Quite a melancholy tune, for day dreaming too.
Woodbury Gamelan… I guess the notes here are being played on the gamelan, that Balinese instrument perhaps first brought to the western world by David Lewiston on his album The Balinese Gamelan in 1967. A fairly squonky kind of melody is played repeatedly, with squeaky sounds, and a pretty, wooden xylophone style of sound. I could google gamelan to see what the thing actually looks like, but I’ll leave that to you.
This is such a nice album to put on late at night, just to transition between the last events of the day and dream-time. It’s an unusual collection of tracks that’s not likely to set the world on fire, but I like it for its unique style. Never quite heard anything like it – ancient dusty bits of folk field recordings mixed with odd instruments and all carefully plotted on whatever bit of software Aaron used to put it together.