Sometimes things are not what they seem to be. And sometimes they are. When I popped in this new release by Josh Russell, I thought we were dealing with the same person who presented microsound compilations on his own Bremstrahlung label but the sound coming out of my speakers weren't certainly microsounding at all. Loud, skipping, almost earthly sounds. Damaged speakers? Damaging speakers? Can't be the same, right? But yes, it's the same person. I checked the press message, and yes, it's him. He has a background in biochemistry and microscopy research, and 'Sink', while loud, may represent a bit of that background. It sounds like a chemistry lab, with obscure fluids being boiled, amplified and brought alive. Or looking through the looking glass and see lots of similar bacteria crawling about - it's them singing on this release. Russell puts on quite an amount of amplification to let you hear them. His loudest record to date, it says. Is he deliberately trying to break out of the microsound world? I hope so, since this sounds great. It has all the trade marks of microsound (minimal, glitch, plug ins, hey maybe even field recordings), but it's so much louder. In the dead end alley that microsound has become it's good to see someone trying to change things and Russell does a really fine job on 'Sink'. Excellently produced with a finer sense of detail in the entire sound range, moving about and varied. Rather one piece divided in ten steps than ten different pieces. The future of microsound has started.
It begins with a flood of woolly electronics, a digitized bottom end bouncing around frenetically, accompanied by a shrill higher pitch, perhaps radio frequency. It doesn’t feel structured, the various frequencies coalescing into one body of sound like a huge piece of industrial machinery with a pulse. Josh Russell’s work is incredibly immerisve, his shimmering bottom end having a unique effect on the ears, a disorientating punch drunk feeling like you have been wrapped in cotton wool and spun around a few times. The sound is somehow familiar, yet not, perhaps it’s the timbre we recognise, the sounds that we normally block out that Russell has harnessed, and now has them behaving in different ways than we remember. Russell hits us with some noise, some staticy spluttery electrics that abruptly burst across the stereo image at quick yet intermittent intervals, later a micro drone, thin, pitched high, somehow soothing, gentle, evolving gradually, recalling bowed cymbals and religious ceremonies. This is Austin Texas based Russell’s fourth long player and not only are the various sounds incredibly articulated with a fine attention to detail, his transitions are nothing short of sublime. He is more than adept at developing a deep immersive sound world and subtly altering it over a period of time until you find yourself somewhere new entirely. This is the kind of electro acoustic sound art music you can lose yourself in. In fact I’d hesitate to think of another album of this ilk that utilises bottom end frequencies so well, yet with skips, hisses and feedback drones, Russell is always aware of the frequency spread, often using it as a tool to control dynamics. This is a fascinating accomplished work.
A physical empathy for noise: Russel is a silent force on the sound art scene. Of all sound artists, Josh Russel may right now well be the most archetypical one. Just like David Newman (who operates under the Autistici moniker), Russel holds a physical empathy for noise in its purest form, for its wonders and its unconscious musicality. At the same time, he is capable of transforming these sounds into something thoroughly composed and steeped in creative breath, while awarding them a level of alluring abstraction, where others would instead use their inbuilt familarity as an easy means to create sympathy and recognition in the listener.
In this regard, Russel may soon come to be seen as the logical and worthy heir to the throne of Asmus Tietchens, even though this analogy of course denies the absolute individuality Russel has already infused his oeuvre with in the early stages of his career. His music seems to exist in between the lines and always appears to be developping in a completely natural way - although it is not always easy to fathom what exactly it is that he is doing with his source material.
“For LP”, his first full-length work, drew and demanded attention for its simultaneously zen-infused minimalism with regards to its presentation of musical ideas and its high-density resolution in terms of parameters like arrangement, methodology and timbre. Sometimes, Russel’s pieces suggested something very recognisable, but the closer one came, the more these associations seemed absurd. Most of all, there was a pervasive sense of emotionality lurking underneath a surface which initially promised cerebral pleasures only – a confounding, but highly appreciated sensation.
On his latest full-length work, released by selective and quality-smitten label Quiet Design, Russel again makes use of the immediate physicality of his sounds. “Sink” comes with the recommendation of “listening at an immersive volume on a playback system capable of articulating low frequencies” – iPod users beware – and hits the listeners directly in his solar plexus. At first, the record comes across as noisy and harsh, abrasive textures drilling themselves into the cortex and mutually embraced floursescent high-frequency tones slowly shooting into the nightsky like genetically engineered stipes.
The proximity to the Industrial movement has already caused some surprise and applause (Dutch reviewer Frans de Waard referring to “Sink” as the future of microsound), but the aggressive nature of the opening in no way contradicts Russel’s philosophy of digging up quiet music usually hidden from the ear by means of amplification and subtle tranformation. After the opening pieces have cleansed the mind, he gradually builds a stageringly tight, bass-heavy drone from a finely grained seed. This 26-minute long second half of the album is divided up into several segments, even though the music simply continues to flow. Track changes occur whenever an old factor disappears or new elements enter the picture. It is almost as if Russel wants to emphasise differrent aspects of his music, indexing the piece along obvious, but never banal lines of development. As is the case with most dedicated sound artists, the questions he asks only make sense inside this reference system – but this does not render them meaningless. At the end of “Sink”, the listener may not have a practical use for his enlightenment, but he will have the strong feeling that he has just gone through something very special.