Olan Mill: Home

Padna: Burnt Offerings

Olan Mill's Home and Padna's Burnt Offerings, the fifth and sixth installments in Preservation's Circa series, bring the 2012 series to a satisfying close. Like others before it, the two releases have been made available in 300-copy runs and display abstract-geometric cover designs by Mark Gowing; certainly one of the project's strengths is its distinctive and immediately identifiable visual aesthetic.

Home, the third Olan Mill album from Alex Smalley and follow-up to the earlier 2012 release Paths (Facture), opens arrestingly with a seeming cataclysm: at the start of “La Sandra Verde,” violent clatter floods the aural space until a detonation occurs, out of which string washes and ethereal choir voices emerge to establish calm and re-instate the luscious neo-classical style that we've come to associate with Olan Mill. The mood thereafter is fairly consistent, as Smalley presents one lulling dreamscape after another, most of which convey an air of heavenly splendour. A major and recurring sound element in the succinct thirty-six-minute set is the operatic vocalizing by soprano Patricia Boynton, who appears alongside the group's guitar and field recordings as well as a small ensemble of musicians who contribute woodwind, piano, pipe organ, and violin to the project. Aside from the wordless singing, the violin in particular assumes a prominent presence as its singing, vibrato-heavy tone manages to soar o'ertop the dense bed of chamber orchestral drift collectively fashioned by the others.

On the one hand, track titles aren't irrelevant—care was obviously taken in naming the pieces “Isla del Sol,” “Carnaval de Sucre,” and so on—yet, on the other, they're almost incidental when the music unfurls in such unified and homogeneous manner. Yes, there are differences between the settings—the organ asserts itself more prominently during “Salar de Uyuni,” for instance, while piano does much the same in “Camino de las Yungas”—but such contrasts aren't so great that the pieces start to sound unrelated, especially when vocals, strings, and field recordings act as connecting threads between them. The album takes its title from the fact that it was recorded at Smalley's home—apparently a place extending back through multiple family generations—but, while the music exudes a serenity that aligns with the notion of home as a safe haven, it's also music that extends sonically far beyond a single locale and instead stretches into the heavens. Home, in this case, appears to refer more to the wider galaxy than a single earth-bound dwelling.

That Nat Hawks' Padna project established itself via cassette releases makes some kind of natural sense, given the kind of weird sounds that regularly rise out of the DIY cassette underground universe. And sure enough, the Brooklyn-based Hawks' fourth Padna outing, Burnt Offerings, has more than its share of warped moments. But it's also got an equally large share of restrained episodes that are even, dare we say, heartfelt. That comes through most explicitly in a folk-styled piece such as “Pelts,” which combines layers of acoustic guitar picking with woodsy woodwind tones to resonant pastoral effect, and during “Never Let Me Go,” which likewise emphasizes delicate acoustic guitar playing, even if it's sometimes offset by the woozy warble of synth sputter. At such moments, Padna appears to be more of an off-kilter transcendental project than one fixated on synth-heavy experimentalism.

Burnt Offerings' opener “Ddiigdugg” starts out in brain-addling mode with squiggly salvos of synthetic fire, but, soon enough, the material stabilizes itself and morphs into a placid set-piece of bright ambient flutterings—more meditative drone than chaotic implosion. Here and elsewhere, a wide range of sounds seeps into the album's material—bell percussion, distorted voice treatments, acoustic guitar, banjo, vintage synths, piano, etc.—all of which amplify the music's hazy, psychedelic character.

As an example of Padna's unusual soundworld, “Caphonic Fog” is certainly one of the album's most arresting. A blurry piano threads itself through a thick mass of hiss as a series of contrasting voice episodes appear in turn, with some voices largely untreated and others slowed to a cryptic crawl. Though string tones imbue it with some degree of calm, the piece nonetheless plays like the audio to some severely disturbed dreamstate. At times Padna's two sides seem to collide within the aural space—“Shoegg,” for example, finds bucolic acoustic strumming on one side doing battle with a fireworks display on the other—but more often than not Hawks manages to strike an uneasy balance between them.

November 2012