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Robert Poss - Distortion Is Truth & Crossing Casco Bay

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Artist: Robert Poss

Album: Distortion Is Truth & Crossing Casco Bay

Label: Trace Elements

Review date: Feb. 5, 2003

The Songs Remain the Same

These companion CDs are Robert Poss's first releases since the 1995 demise of Band of Susans. Compiling recordings made over the last few years (both in the studio and in performance, solo and accompanied), Distortion Is Truth and Crossing Casco Bay feature a wealth of diverse material, ranging from sparse electronic soundscapes to full-on drone-athons to tracks that flirt with conventional rock song formats.

The title of the first of these albums encapsulates Poss's aesthetic. His work rests on the notion that the essence of rock music is actually the part that's traditionally been considered a non-essential by-product: distortion. Distortion (in its various manifestations) has been seen as the deforming of pure, true sound and has either been cleaned up by increasingly perfect technology or at best included as an adornment (added on via effects, for instance). Poss's method inverts that hierarchy and values false, distorted, accidental sounds, taking them as the essence of his compositions and building on them. This Derridean approach is evident throughout these two CDs.

Consisting of feedback over hand-played percussion, "You Know the Drill" offers a paradigmatic example of Poss's aesthetics of distortion and his privileging of the impure. In mainstream rock, feedback is largely an accidental sound to be kept in check or perhaps cultivated for the deliberately shambolic end of a song in the live context; here it becomes the body of the track. As Poss puts it, distortion is the "cake" itself, not just the "frosting" in his sonic recipes.

Although Poss's world is guitar-centric, guitars are unrecognizable on several of these tracks, at least to the untrained ear. Subjecting the instrument to varieties of electronic processing and manipulation, he crafts austere ambient passages ("That Same Dream Again") and otherworldly interludes ("Radio Free Albemuth Revisited"). To British listeners, the spooky noise fragments on the latter will bear an uncanny resemblance to the voices of The Clangers, the legendary '70s television space rodents. But not everything here is electronically generated – real animal life can be heard on the brief sound postcard "Daybreak in Hanga Roa," which seems to feature cockerels, cicadas, and running water.

At the same time as Poss's avant-garde experiments transform the guitar and open up new possibilities for the instrument, he doesn't completely forsake some of its more traditional sounds. For instance, he supplements the sparse textures of "Memphis/Little Rock" with some bluesy slide playing and the brief "Showbiz" has a straightforward jazzy feel.

Still, the most engaging pieces are those on which Poss combines guitars and electronics to produce his signature drones. While sustained notes or chords are often part of rock compositions that also incorporate elements of melody, variation, and progression, Poss focuses on sustained sounds and repetition almost to the exclusion of those other components. On Distortion Is Truth such explorations are relatively economical, the relentless pulse of "Henix Sambolo" running for a mere six-and-a-half minutes; on Crossing Casco Bay, however, the title track and "Drift" account for nearly 40 of the album's 50 minutes.

These layered, looped epics recall the mesmerizing minimalism of Fripp and Eno's No Pussyfooting, albeit pushed to an extreme. What makes these pieces so compelling is the idea that Poss creates music from the apparent absence of music, or of what we might recognize as music. There's no real melody, and progression and variation are almost imperceptible, yet these textured drones come alive to the ear in startling ways. While the "song" seems to remain exactly the same for the duration, different patterns nevertheless emerge, coalesce, and dissipate as you listen. Indeed, the aural experience of these tracks is akin to gazing intently at an intricately patterned carpet or wallpaper and perceiving momentary forms and designs.

Elsewhere, Poss skirts around the edges of more conventional territory. Tracks like "You Were Relentless" (which evokes Band of Susans) and the Wire-esque "Management Confidential" boast some of the familiar rock tropes: heavy beats, driving rhythms, and vocals. However, rather than progressing into a discernible "song," these elements simply loop. The effect is almost as if the opening moments of a rock song were repeating over and over. He is essentially doing here what he does on the other tracks – building repeating patterns – but he's just drawing on a broader palette of sounds.

Although this all might seem overly brainy and vaguely academic, these records make for intensely pleasurable listening. Despite Poss's cerebral approach and the experimental-minimalist orientation of his work, it still offers much of the visceral satisfaction of organic rock music.

By Wilson Neate

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