Steve Roden: “a big circle drawn with little hands”
Two new vinyl releases from ini.itu provide dramatically different listening experiences. On the one hand, we've got Mutamassik's fusion of exotic Egyptian sounds and hip-hop-inflected breaks; on the other, there's Steve Roden, a familiar name known for his idiosyncratic take on “lowercase” sound sculpting.
Born in Italy to an Egyptian mother, Giulia Loli chose her Mutamassik alias well, given that it means tenacity in Arabic. Her raw sound—sometimes labeled Sa'aidi hardcore and Baladi breakbeats—is certainly tenacious, but it's also notable for being so distinctive: how many other artists can you name who're working in her particular corner of the instrumental hip-hop universe? On Rekkez, her first vinyl release in over eight years, the music's pretty much what one might expect—serpentine, chant-like melodies and fragmented voice samples meld sinuously with deep bass rumble and head-nodding funk and hip-hop rhythms—though it's no less appealing for meeting up with one's expectations; in that regard, it forms an unbroken line from the Sound Ink collection, Masri Mokkassar: Definitive Works, that we reviewed in 2005, despite the amount of time separating the releases. An occasional turntable scratch surfaces amongst the exotica to render the collision of East and West explicit, and Loli threads her own playing of instruments (re'qs, mazhar, douf, cello, drums, keyboards, SP1200, Akai S3000) in amongst ululating voices and field recordings (animals, people, traffic, etc.) originating from Tuscany, Egypt, and other locations. Coated in dust and grime, the material on the forty-minute album's generally raw and fuzzy, often subtly menacing in tone, and sometimes exudes a druggy vibe in its woozy beat patterning. Adding to the release's individuating character, the album (250 copies available) includes a striking large-format poster (twenty-three by thirty-three inches) designed and painted by Loli herself.A poster shows up inside the Roden sleeve, too, though it's a tad smaller than the Mutamassik image and photographic rather than illustrative. Even so, it's a nice complement to the disc itself, which features six pieces the Pasadena-based sound artist produced using specific audio materials (in keeping with ini.itu's initial proposition) that Roden supplemented with radio, old records, and other sound sources. The poster imagery isn't unrelated to the musical content on “a big circle drawn with little hands” either as the items displayed—coins, a toy piano, can opener, etc.—are the unusual objects he used to generate the album's micro-detailed soundworlds. As such, the placidly meandering “Two Hands Submerged in Water” actually conjures a wistful aura in its dream-like ambient flow. “Two Hands Behind Glass” likewise nurtures a meditative ambiance in the way its flickering tones and agitated percussive patterns arrange themselves into a chattering micro-universe. “Sparks From One Hand on Fire” sounds like a recording captured outdoors, seeing as how its musical tones are smothered in the nocturnal whirr of insects and distorted voice noises. A track such as “Forty Hands in Anticipation of a Word” suggests that Roden has used a minimum of source materials in a given setting but has exploited their potential resourcefully in order to produce a maximal range of sound effects. The song titles—“One Hand Pressing a Pencil Against a Tree,” a representative example—hint at the production processes involved in their construction, though it's also possible that the titles are designed to serve a purely evocative end only; the cover note—“all sounds generated or organized by Steve Roden in The Bubble House”—only adds to the mystery. The recording's enigmatic music draws the listener in with its unhurried and wandering spirit, and one comes away from the album generally charmed by its electro-acoustic curiosities.