Hiss Tracts: Shortwave Nights

Listeners coming to Hiss Tracts' debut album Shortwave Nights with no background knowledge of the project will bring an altogether different set of expectations to it than will the listener aware of the respective histories of members David Bryant and Kevin Doria. Their involvement in Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Set Fire To Flames (Bryant) and Growing and Total Life (Doria) might quite plausibly suggest to that listener that the forty-five minutes of material on the release will be guitar-heavy, atmospheric, explorative, and untethered by beats, and that the instrumental soundscapes will feature an eclectic range of sounds, among them field recordings, samples, tapes, and keyboards (synthesizer, piano, mellotron). That listener also might expect that the material will be reminiscent of the lo-fi, static-laden, and somewhat grime-coated world evoked on the Set Fire To Flames recordings, and be dotted with an occasional voice sample for added texture.

On all such counts the listener would be correct, even if the picture would still be incomplete. For one, the recording's ten tracks weren't created by Bryant and Doria alone, as guests such as cellist Kristina Koropecki, dictaphone player Brooke Dane Crouser, and digital wrangler Jonathan Parant also contribute to the album's dense soundworld. That said, Shortwave Nights is primarily the creative product of a project Bryant and Doria began working on years ago, with material within the tracks originating from rehearsal tapes made in 2008 for a Lausanne Underground Film Festival performance and subsequently worked on in the years since. There's a loose and free-floating feel to the material, but don't mistake loose for aimless: Bryant and Doria apply a lucid governing sensibility to the tracks that sees them develop in natural directions whilst also allowing room for an improvisatory feel to remain. And while there's an homogeneous character to the album that argues against discussing tracks as isolated entities, mention must be made of the penultimate piece, “Test Recording at Trembling City” for the unnerving wail it rises to over the course of its seven minutes.

One thing Shortwave Nights assuredly isn't is a straight-up ambient or drone recording. The tracks are saturated with too much vivid detail for labels such as those to apply, leaving one to propose soundscapes as a better choice, even if it's too generic to offer any substantive account of the material on offer. One also shouldn't make too much of the fact that the two members are identified as guitarists for even though the instrument is very much a key part of the sonic definition of the album, it's hardly a towering focal point. Instead, guitar acts as one element within a fluid and fluctuating mix that only in brief moments leans in the direction of dronescaping or post-industrial collage. All things considered, there's little doubt that the album should appeal strongly to long-time devotees of both Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Set Fire To Flames.

June 2014