Keith Berry: Simulacra

The title of Keith Berry's double-CD set for Infraction comes with no small amount of baggage, considering how solidly tied the word “simulacra” now is to the writings of Jean Baudrillard, most obviously his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation. Berry's release isn't an homage, however, though a connection could definitely be made to one of Baudrillard's central themes, the idea that in postmodern culture artificial renderings of the real world have so thoroughly supplanted that which they're representing that reality now imitates the model. In that 1981 text, he writes, “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.”

How this aligns with the Infraction material the British sound artist, whose esteemed work (The Ear That Was Sold To A Fish and Towards the Blue Peninsula, for starters) has appeared on labels such as Trente Oiseaux and Elevator Bath, has created becomes clear when one scans the opening disc's twelve track titles. Imaginary locales, among them “Xylocopa Point,” “Spektr Forest,” and “Kolrox Beach,” are identified, as are bodies of water such as “Perma Bay” and “Kritikon Sea,” the twelve settings combining to form a vivid portrait of a fictional world whose details call J. G. Ballard to mind as much as they do Baudrillard. The features in question could just as easily be referring to those at a newly discovered Earth zone as ones on another planet.

At the album's start, “Perma Bay” evokes a vibrant scene teeming with dramatic activity and resplendent in detail, whether it be surface crackle, radiant synth flourishes, or sparkling keyboard textures. “Xylocopa Point” is as evocative, with this time metallic accents and sea breezes conjuring the image of some mist-coated watery vista, but so too are all twelve in their own way (the mist is so thick, in fact, during “Kritikon Sea,” you might begin to feel as if Simulacra has suddenly transformed into a Basic Channel release). Particularly lustrous is “Praxis Gulf,” whose softly glimmering elements bring to mind images of fireflies darting through the air on a dusky evening, while “Cape Dusona” catches one's ear by working a pulsating synth pattern into its lulling loops. Contrasts are plentiful, never more audible than in the change that occurs when the serene “Muir Lake” is followed by the bleepy reveries “Spektr Forest” and Isan-like “Kristall Ridge.” Berry's but one of a large number of ambient producers, of course, but Simulacra and its verdant, sometimes mystery-laden landscapes show him to be among the genre's best.

Whereas most of disc one's pieces are relatively concise (the opening twelve-minute setting the outlier), the second's trio are all long-form, two of them twenty-minute settings and the first thirty-seven. As satisfying as the shorter pieces are, it's perhaps the second half's that speak most powerfully on Berry's behalf. It's one thing to engage the listener with a five-minute production; it takes a special talent to sustain interest for nearly forty minutes, and that “Simactia” does so testifies to Berry's gifts as a soundsculptor. With simple, Discreet Music-like figures softly intoning within an oceanic mass of hiss and crackle, the material relaxedly wends its peaceful way as if it could go on forever. Much the same could be said for the subsequent two, “Imaculara” and “Muaulra,” both of which advance as leisurely as “Simactia.” There are subtle differences, however: “Imaculara” appears to bury its repeating melodic fragments even more deeply under a softly flickering concretion of static and thrum than “Simactia,” whereas “Muaulra” strips away much of the textural detail for a purer presentation of placid, slow-motion synth expressions.

Berry includes with the release a long list of the hardware used in the production of the material, but one would be misguided, I think, to take this as any sign of gear fetishism. More likely, it's simply Berry choosing to share information about the technical dimension of the project with technology trainspotters, as well as remind listeners in true Baudrillardian fashion that the imaginary realms so vividly conjured on the recording are after all nothing other than abstract constructions generated using physical means.

December 2017