Human Greed: World Fair
It's interesting that in writing about World Fair, his fifth recording under the Human Greed name (seven if two non-ensemble pieces are counted), Michael Begg states that though the album finds him attempting “to up my game with regards to formal musical theory and composition,” he also confesses, “I don't know how to begin marking out its foundations for you.” It's not that he's confused about the project or unclear about its intentions so much as that its wide-ranging content doesn't lend itself to easy dissemination. Topics such as entropy, science, faith, mortality, and “the second law of thermodynamics, the singularity and heat death of the observable universe” compose the allusive narrative structure, while the music itself supports the thematic material by partially rooting its songcraft in the 16th century. If a visual image were to be chosen to represent World Fair, it would be that of the early alchemist testing out various chemical potions in a candle-lit lab.
Begg and Deryk Thomas are credited as Human Greed's members, but the album is hardly a two-person production. A great many guests appear, among them Colin Potter (Nurse With Wound) and Pietro Riperbelli, the latter of whom provided field recordings of cathedral interiors. Intensely dramatic and slow-moving, the sixty-seven-minute album plays like a wide-ranging song-cycle that alternates between brooding instrumental passages, spoken word episodes, and vocal settings. One piece bleeds into the next, strengthening the tapestry-like character of the presentation. The sequencing of the material is something Begg and Thomas carefully considered, as evidenced by the natural segue that occurs when the hymnal “Entropy Suite” flows so seamlessly into the haunting cover of “Black is the Colour.”
“Invocation” sets the scene with three minutes of enigmatic, low-key atmospherics, after which the bleak, strings-heavy title track appears, perpetuating the cryptic spirit of the opener. Without deviating from the subdued tone, “Waiting in a Car” presents Nicole M. Boitos intoning “I believe in heat death, I believe in counting stars,” among other portentous lines. Settings of equally symphonic scope follow, and strings (courtesy of cellist Alistair Mackenzie and violinist Duncan Mackenzie) and voices (Sophie Bancroft, Chris Connelly, and Sukie Smith in addition to Boitos) figure prominently. Mention must be made of “Chrysler,” an eight-minute meditation co-written by Steven R. Smith (Ulaan Khol, Hala Strana) that features his spike fiddle and guitar playing, as well as the haunting vocal setting “Heat Death.”
World Fair is a strong and provocative album, one assembled with obvious care by its creators and kaleidoscopically rich in sonic colour. It's especially notable for the deftness with which it blends centuries-old songcraft with modern electronic production treatments and sounds. Missteps are rare, though a couple of sour vocal notes mar an otherwise fine rendering of “Black is the Colour.” To the credit of its creators, Human Greed's presentation is refreshingly free of the heavyhandedness that might have weighed the project down in another's hands, even if it's impossible to deny the omnipresent undertow of its content.