Galbraith / Neilson / Youngs
ichard Youngs has remarked that he does not see a unifying thread connecting his widely varied network of collaborative projects and solo recordings. You’d have to be a hell of a critic to prove him wrong: although certain Youngs albums share particular preoccupations, no style, form, or technique persists through his entire body of work, or even an overwhelming chunk of his catalogue. In this year alone, the Glaswegian’s output has testified to his versatility. 5 Years, a series of duets with longstanding compatriot Simon Wickham-Smith, reimagines Soft Machine’s organ-fueled blowouts with hypnotic layers of electronics. There isn’t a hint of knob-twiddling to be heard, though, in his contributions to Jandek’s two live discs, Glasgow Sunday and Glasgow Monday, where he plays exactly the sort of droning, discombobulated accompaniment one would expect at a Jandek performance. Also notable is Road Is an Open Life, a Celebrate Psi Phenomenon-released set of skronky free-rock jams that could pass for a Dead C soundtrack to an early 1970s video nasty. And those are just the albums that saw relatively wide release.
With two equally chameleonic experimenters—New Zealand-based home-recording icon Alastair Galbraith and fellow Jandek-abettor Alex Neilson—joining him for Belsayer Time, Youngs turns out his most ambitious song cycle of 2006. It’s also his most inviting: each of this short-run, vinyl-only release’s songs ebb and pulse like the vertigo-inducing swirl label pasted onto each side of the LP. Think of this slab as the latest manifestation of Youngs’s evolving interest in Terry Riley-style minimalism.
If you’re wondering why I’m presenting Belsayer Time as a Richard Youngs album when there are two other artists’ names on it, please let me direct your attention to the first two tracks. In “Idumea”—the same Christian hymn Current 93 saw fit to interpret eight times on Black Ships Ate the Sky—it’s hard to tell who’s playing what – clanging percussion and boggy backwards electronics bleed together into a miasmic ur-drone. But Youngs’s voice soars over the mess, all multi-tracked and enveloping. Like his spiritual forebear Robert Wyatt, Youngs is great at the voice-as-instrument trick: his singing is ambitious and aerial but not preening, a ghostly presence (one both haunting and haunted) rather than an intrusive one. His utterances act as an even more sublime foil to clatter in “Paint on the Skeleton,” words spiriting lithely over a distorted buzz that sounds like a close-mic’d neon sign.
“Samain” is much more of a synchronized effort. It’s a rocker of Vesuvian proportions, electronics squawking like hungry pterodactyls, molten fuzz guitar oozing through the background, Neilson hacking away at his drum kit like he’s Hamid Drake. For all its pyrotechnics, though, the song still has a rhythmic pulse, which renders it more satisfying than your typical ESP-Disk-inspired free-for-all. The trio also proves adept at navigating more peaceful waters: “Firelore” consists of a placid, oscillating melody (analog synth? ebowed guitar?) and only a smidgen of feedback. Think of it as Cluster and Eno on a shoestring budget.
Unfortunately, a muddy mix—probably the result of a digital recording converted into an analog format—makes this record more challenging than it has to be. The album’s rough texture might cause you to miss some simple and strangely beautiful moments like the circular acoustic guitar patterns in “Coral” that pirouette like rusty copper windchimes. Bear with Belsayer Time, though, and you’ll discover one quality that is perhaps universal to the music of Youngs and his collaborators: the ability to imbue even the most abstract musings with a sense of grace.
Reviewed by: Phillip Buchan
Reviewed on: 2006-12-12