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Phill Niblock - Touch Strings

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Artist: Phill Niblock

Album: Touch Strings

Label: Touch

Review date: Oct. 26, 2009

Phill Niblock’s last album, Touch Three was a mammoth, three-disc endeavor. To the rabid fan, it was a satisfying portion of Niblock signature sound, in a duration more closely resembling his live performances. But the prospect of digesting all three discs in succession is overwhelming, thereby lessening their cumulative effect. There’s no question that Touch Three is excellent, exhibiting a diversity of sound (relatively, of course) sometimes missing in Niblock’s discography, and some of the best work of the septuagenarian’s career. As a larger album, Touch Three felt more like a curated collection of Niblock’s recent work more than a singular statement.

Niblock’s most recent release is Touch Strings, a two-disc affair featuring, as the name implies, music performed wholly on stringed instruments. The use of strings is a nice unifier, even if the three pieces included have distinctly different sounds. Even those casually familiar with Niblock’s work know what to expect: the assimilation of interweaving drones and hidden tones, creating a music that is both expansive and infinitely detailed, easy to "get" yet often challenging to truly hear.

"Stosspeng," which constitutes the first disc, is vintage Niblock, melding electric guitar and bass into a smooth and unhurried behemoth. The piece has few rough edges, with the Niblock-modified tones intermingling and overtaking one another in slow, gentle waves. The hard panning of the track injects a separation not always present in Niblock’s work, and at times Susan Stenger and Robert Poss pull apart in terms of pitch, leaving the ingredients of Niblock’s microtonal aural illusions easier to distinguish than they might usually be. "Stosspeng," though, likely won’t be a revelation to the seasoned Niblock listener; it’s deceptively simple (built often on only two or three pitches), more so than most of Niblock’s compositions, but the final product follows a familiar trajectory within the Niblock oeuvre.

The simplicity of "Stosspeng" is contrasted starkly by the second disc’s "Poure." Featuring Arne Deforce on cello, "Poure" layers bowed strings into a dense hive of musical activity. Niblock analyzed Deforce’s playing with an oscilloscope during recording, collecting the slight shifts in pitch that he might otherwise have created digitally. The single tones, as they are laid upon one another, create a blanket of striated sound. If "Stosspeng" is a mass of intermittently bubbled obsidian, "Poure" is a tunnel of banded sandstone, built of straight lines rather than rounded edges. Tonally, the cello creates a chorus of hums and buzzes, lending gristle to the edges of the music’s layers.

A sinewy grit also appears in "One Large Rose," which, contrary to how Niblock often works, was recorded by the four-piece Nelly Boyd Ensemble, live and in unison. Performed on cello, strummed piano, violin and acoustic bass guitar, the piece glows with a particular feeling of life, breathing in a manner more organic and human than many of Niblock’s constructions. The four instruments combine to create a sound seemingly bigger than its parts, a testament to how much Niblock can cull from a specific set of sounds, no matter how small. The ensemble members, in fact, note how surprised they were to hear the rough mixes, remarking that "One Large Rose" sounded markedly different while they were playing it. There’s more of a momentum to the piece than its predecessors, and as different combinations of instruments come to the fore, one begins to hear currents in the liquid tone of the composition, propelling the listener on a steady, insistent course. It can be a claustrophobic and confining listening experience.

Touch Strings is a survey of Niblock’s approach, in terms of both the generation and amalgamation of the music’s individual voices. With their genesis in strings as a unifying factor, the album explores Niblock’s meticulous composition from three different angles, and proves to be another great addition to the artist’s discography. Niblock may not be a young man, but he’s in no danger of backsliding. His work over the last few albums has been some of the best of his career.

By Adam Strohm

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