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David Toop - Black Chamber

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Artist: David Toop

Album: Black Chamber

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Feb. 24, 2004

Any album that starts with a high-pitched pure tone gets a quick black mark in my book, though at least in the case of Black Chamber it doesn't last long. After the initial few moments of "Soft Cavities," a murky, shuffling percussive rhythm comes in, mixed with synth tones, brief sax squeaks courtesy of Lol Coxhill, and myriad small sounds. The latter seems to cover pretty much all of the tracks here, actually – it's a subdued album, filled with small sounds that drift in and out.

Despite an overall sense of seriousness, there are also moments of musique concrete assemblage that bring chuckles, intended or not. The mooing sounds at the start of "Raw Mouth Shape," for example, are presumably from Terry Day's bamboo pipes, but laid over strange buzzings and rustling sounds, the result initially feels like listening in on a very strange farm's milking session.

It's such sonic coincidences that make the listening experience worthwhile, because all too often these pieces seem irritatingly random. Put on in the background, Black Chamber can draw the ear from time to time with its unusual collection of audio snippets. But when it's made the focus of the listener's attention, it doesn't always work. Combining the street sounds of "Silver Birds" with a looped bird's song – that sounds like a Playstation laser – comes off as nothing more than a vaguely annoying juxtaposition that doesn't actually convey any meaning.

The haunting atmosphere of "Ill-Faced Doll," with eerie vocals by Yurihito Watanabe, is the flip side of that, however. Glisteningly artificial electronic tones create a base of edginess, as Watanabe's vocals and organ by Tom Recchion lurk around dark corners. It's a very effective audio spook-show.

If only that sort of consistency was more the rule here than the exception. "Blind Eel Priestess," while offering a bit of the sense of humor at which the title hints, suffers from the randomness also implied. The surrealist approach leads to a lack of continuity and follow-through.

It's clear that Toop can, when his mind is put to it, use his toolbox to craft some intriguing narratives. It can be difficult, however, to play with such a wide-ranging palette and still reign in the impulse to throw things in just because one can. In the cases here where Toop keeps the plot in sight, the results are rewarding. But too often, the plot line is lost, leaving the listener without enough of a thread to follow.

By Mason Jones

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