John Matthias & Jay Auborn: Race To Zero
Collaborators John Matthias and Jay Auborn certainly bring impressive CVs to this joint project. A musician, composer, and academic, Matthias has a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Exeter University, in 2008 was awarded (with Jane Grant and Nick Ryan) the UK PRS Foundation New Music Award for the development of the sonic installation The Fragmented Orchestra, and is an Associate Professor in Sonic Arts at Plymouth University. For his part, Auborn has created music to accompany an exhibition of Gerhard Richter paintings and scored, among other films, Stanley Donwood's Broadmead. It surprises little that extensive discussions accompanied the writing and production work that went into the nine pieces featured on Race To Zero.
The two began by recording acoustic improvisations in a number of locations, including a 700-year-old chapel in the Devon countryside and a basement studio in Reykjavík. Driven by a concept having to do with the fracturing of experience exacerbated by the digital condition, the duo subjected the recordings to a battery of treatments, reverb, processing, and otherwise, until the tracks assumed their eventual form; an unforeseen development surfaced when the computer gear, pushed to its limits, introduced sonic errors that would have proved difficult to achieve otherwise and were thus embraced as fortuitous by the pair. The result is a genre-defying, polystylistic set that straddles traditional musical practice in the physical generation of its source elements and the digital realm in the extreme post-production strategies that were brought to bear upon them. Though references to ambient, post-rock, pastoral folk, electronica, and prog are suggested, the album resists pigeonholing.
It's not uncommon for acoustic instruments such as guitar, piano, violin, acoustic bass, and drums to emerge within a given track, but it's the way they're shaped that gives the music its identity. Though the opening cut “Actress,” for example, features said elements, an ominous, almost subliminal undercurrent of dread accompanies them to give the material a disturbing air. Here and elsewhere, sounds lose their originating character and morph into sweeping textures, while beat patterns nod in post-rock and dubstep directions without committing themselves to any one style in particular. Though some degree of ponderousness seeps into the presentation (e.g., “Caretaker”), the album's often refreshingly lively: see “Pretoria,” for instance, which midway through turns funky when claps and an insistent throb join the tune's rollicking piano. Of all the tracks, “Wax Heart” proves especially ear-catching when a wiry synth element adds a dose of prog fever to the album, the cut's most extreme flirtation with prog a Keith Emerson-like Moog figure, until a rustic violin sequence effects the transition into the dramatic strings-and-horns setpiece “Stone Face.”
In a detailed note describing the creative process for “Songbird,” Matthias cites artists such as Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis as inspirations the two drew upon during its production and in doing so accentuates the “polychronization” of their creative process. The term's as good a one as any for capturing what the two are up to on this solid, thirty-eight-minute outing.