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Ensemble Economique - At the Foot of Nameless Roads

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Artist: Ensemble Economique

Album: At the Foot of Nameless Roads

Label: Digitalis

Review date: Nov. 25, 2008

Since their emergence in 2007 from the wilds of Northern California as Starving Weirdos, the duo of Brian Pyle and Merrick McKinlay have been one of the experimental underground’s most consistent (and consistently undervalued) entities. A seemingly bottomless stock of recordings and, more importantly, an unerring hand with editing and arranging, mean that their discography, large though it may be, is full of highlights. This solo debut by Pyle, sharing everything the Weirdos do well, is another one.

The Weirdos’ music is successful because it occupies many moods and many perspectives on sound-shaping. It is just as evocative of harsh industrial landscapes as it is of awe-inspiring natural scenes. It could be classic studio electronica (think Stockhausen’s "Kontake") or modern-day DIY drone and noise. It harnesses dissonance like avant-garde chamber music for strings and explodes with dense energy like the best free jazz.

Because their music gives off such disparate interpretations, it’s easy to think of their finished pieces as intuitive, but they are too well-balanced and paced to not be designed. And, in another similarity to electronic composers, this is exactly how the duo works: amassing huge sound libraries, then assembling, editing and transforming later. Pyle’s sound arsenal might be sightly more stripped down than the Weirdos – limited mostly to bowed metal, distorted guitars and miniature percussion – but he delves even deeper into trance-inducing repetition and dissonant harmony. The title track is a study in mannered, tension-building pacing. On "Mud Banks Shine in Broken Shards," Pyle produces a broad, fearsome chord, a sustained burn of reeds and sizzling, extended high-frequency tones. Balancing out all the drone and drift are three brief rhythmic interludes that not only quicken the record’s pace, but suggest some promising new directions for the Weirdos.

Pyle is very good at blurring the origins of his sounds just enough so that his music does the only thing that really matters with music that aspires to mind-altering status – it evokes a palpable sense of the unknown. The percussion that keeps "In Each Cracked Shell There Is Restless Time" in constant motion could be a field recording of (some natural process), a single percussive texture chopped-up, sampled and sequenced, or a whole a chorus of drummers. The point is, you never know. "Fire," with its long stretches of fire recordings creating a crackling, very alive background, is a bit more obvious, but it gives a glimpse of how Pyle hears, how he finds patterns in random events and foregrounds them until they have their own bold presence.

So, At the Foot of Nameless Roads is another winner for the Weirdos camp, but is releasing consistently good records enough? Where is the record that really blows the top of your head off? What could a piece like "Light Reflects as Seagulls Dive" become? There are real possibilities lurking inside it, but it’s brief running time means it remains only suggestive. This is perhaps the real problem with the very prolific, genuinely creative artists – like the Weirdos – working in the underground today: Intriguing ideas appear continually, but the music always seems to stay in the realm of the possible, always becoming and never being. So, by releasing so much music, are acts like the Weirdos working against themselves, putting process over a more refined final statement? McKinlay, and especially Pyle here, do better than most at maintaining an engaging, exciting level of quality. But can they maintain that level, or even push it higher?

By Matthew Wuethrich

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