Morgan Packard: Airships Fill the Sky
Morgan Packard + Joshue Ott: Unsimulatable
Perhaps the most appealing thing about Morgan Packard's debut solo album Airships Fill the Sky is how much it defies pigeonholing. Scattered throughout its nine, densely-textured settings are elements of techno, dub, and foundsound-styled sampling, but there's no pronounced allegiance to any single genre. If one had to classify it, dub-techno might be the most accurate label but the designation still seems imperfect. This sophomore release on the New York-based Anticipate imprint also comes with a DVD titled Unsimulatable, an entirely separate audio-visual collaboration between Packard and media artist Joshue Ott (who created the appealing visuals for Ezekiel Honig's "Concrete and Plastic" video). What helps make this release special is that it's really the first opportunity we've had to appreciate Packard's music on its own, as his last release, 2005's lovely Early Morning Migration, was itself a collaboration with Ezekiel Honig.
Throughout Airships Fill the Sky, Packard's accordion and saxophone playing provides a refreshing acoustic contrast to the album's electronic dimension which is more present implicitly as a means of production. Each song teems with detail, percussive and otherwise, and captivating pieces like “Kelp Sway” can be appreciated as much for their organic flow as their multi-tiered arrangements. The album's distinctive character declares itself at the outset when the accordion's wheeze introduces the loping pulse of “Airships Fill the Sky.” Percussive rattles add a foundsound quality, while a gentle stream of pitter-patter and bell accents augments the composition's multi-layered flow. A richly-textured dub-techno style dominates “I Think I...,” with loud percussive clatter and beat accents giving it a heavier feel than the opener, while alternating chords assume the lead during the lumbering “Dappled.” Beats subside during the lovely, classically-tinged meditation “Mink Hills,” which makes it all the easier to savour the sound of Packard's saxophone paired with Jody Redhage's cello. “A Place Worth Keeping (part 1)” flows entrancingly, before evolving into a more ambient-classical style where rippling patterns and shimmering waves suggest the morning calm of the outdoors. In its opening minutes, “Waterbugs” returns Packard to the evocate sound-sculpting approach so effectively realized on Early Morning Migration before it slowly morphs into an overlong exercise in jazzy techno-swing. Packard generally keeps his influences close to the vest but the vibes patterns in the sparkling closer “They Will Rise Forever”—intentionally or not—can't help but recall Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Each composition yields surprises, and impressive too is the meticulous care with which Packard obviously crafted the collection; Airships Fill the Sky is clearly a project to which he gave himself fully and the attention to detail is evident at every moment.
As mentioned, the forty-minute Unsimulatable DVD production pairs Packard's music with superDraw visuals Joshue Ott generates by inputting sketches of lines into the computer using a digital drawing tablet and pen. Using a protocol called OSC (Open Source Control), the artists' respective programs communicate with one another, allowing the creators to trigger modifications like scene changes and colour adjustments. Throughout the piece, washes of sound translate into patterns of mutating colour. At times, the screen fills with upwardly-flowing verticals and blood red shapes against a teal background; at other moments, one careens rapidly towards the center of a white skeletal vortex. On occasion, Ott creates a distinctive three-dimensional sleight-of-hand where objects project towards the viewer. Not surprisingly, Unsimulatable is best viewed on a large screen, despite the fact that the image clarity suffers slightly in the bigger display and shapes' jagged edges become more visible.
Musically, the piece opens with loud stabs and splashes before settling into a more pleasing digi-dub style. Though much of Airships Fill the Sky isn't repeated, “I Think I...” does re-appear with white streams circulating in tandem to the song's percussive shudders. Compared to disc one, the music on the DVD is more electronic and aggressive (one section even adds hints of post-rock to its smeared patterning) and opts for meandering flow over tightly structured construction. In short, disc two is musically less distinguished compared to the first half's methodically composed material. Certainly the synchronicity between the music and visuals is impressive but Unsimulatable at times feels like an improvised jam by the artists (it should be noted that the programs used in its production demand that the entire piece be recorded live in one take). In effect, the ideal context for Unsimulatable is the concert hall where the visual complement to Packard's playing can serve as a stimulating analogue to the music. Certainly Anticipate should be applauded for ambitiously issuing the release in this elaborate multi-dimensional format. Having said that, the DVD might best be regarded as a bonus supplement to the more satisfying Airships Fill the Sky.